Why the Chestnut Tree Has White Candles

For a few weeks every spring, the chestnut blazes with white candles. Their flames are so bright you have to shade your eyes when you look at them. Then they gutter and die, and their blooms drip to the earth like wax – until they catch light again next spring. A miracle of nature, people say. But the chestnut tree’s candles didn’t come naturally.

It happened like this.

Once upon a time all was darkness. Then Zeus threw his hat in the ring, and there was light for half the day. All the creatures of the earth were delighted. But soon they wanted more. Why should the sun disappear each dusk? Light our nights for us as well, they begged Zeus.

Zeus was having none of it. A god can only take so much. If they wanted their nights lit up, they must sort it out themselves.

Hamm and Hermione volunteered to help. Both had been born with a special gift – winged arms and feet. It was said their mothers had mated with swans. Whatever the truth, the two children became friends and, as they grew up, would often soar above the earth together for a laugh. Now it was time to spread their wings in earnest.

It was Hermione who dreamt up the plan. Out in the sky were millions of stars. All it needed was to bring one down to earth, or as near to earth as people could stand, so that it hovered there, like a paper lantern, lighting up the night.

‘But how will we do it?’ Hamm said.

‘You’ll take one side and I’ll take the other and we’ll pull.’

‘Will we be strong enough?’

‘Of course. There’s only air in our way. It’ll be a doddle.’

‘But even if we succeed, what’s to stop the star drifting off again?’

‘We’ll tie it to a giant tree trunk.’

As they descended, they looked like a pair of divers with a huge white jellyfish, bright bubbles trailing behind.

They set off next day for the nearest star, but when they got there it proved too hot to handle – so hot their wings were scorched and they had to wait till the feathers grew back. Things looked hopeless. Was every star as fiery as the sun? Then they came upon a star they hadn’t noticed before. It was perfect: small, cool, phosphorescent, and light as an eggshell. When they pulled, it came with them, easy as pie.

‘Take care,’ Hermione said. ‘It’s terribly fragile.’ She was right. No other star in the cosmos was as delicate. As they carried it, little fragments broke off and slipped away into the night, shining back at them like glow-worms.

For an age, Hamm and Hermione headed downwards, back to earth. Strong though they were, and light
though the star was, the journey was exhausting. Sometimes they pushed from behind; sometimes they rowed, using their free arms like oars; sometimes they swam on their backs, kicking their legs, with the star like a giant beach ball above them.

As they descended, they looked like a pair of divers with a huge white jellyfish, bright bubbles trailing behind.

Slowly the earth rose into sight below.

Though friends, Hamm and Hermione didn’t always see eye to eye. As they neared the end of their journey, they began to argue.

‘Let’s get this over with,’ Hamm said, yanking so hard that a large slice of star sheared off. ‘We’re going too slow.’

‘If we go any faster, it will shatter,’Hermione said.

‘I want to get home. I’m tired and hungry.’

‘Just be patient.’

Hamm tried to be patient, but as the earth swam closer – so close that he could make out rivers, forests and plains, clear as a football pitch under floodlights – he couldn’t help rushing. The star twisted and bulged as he humped it like a coal sack over his shoulders.

‘Slow down, we’re close enough,’ Hermione said. It was where they’d planned to stop: there were mountains not far below. All it needed was for one of them to fly down and fetch a rope while the other held the star steady. Then they’d tether it to a giant tree trunk and their mission would be done. ‘Stop!’ Hermione cried. But Hamm pressed on, not looking where he was going. The star creaked and groaned like a ship on a raging sea.

The star twisted and bulged as he humped it like a coal sack over his shoulders.

‘Stop, stop!’ she shouted, seeing a peak right below them. But it was too late. As they brushed the snow-capped summit, there was a rumble from within the star, then cracks spreading across its crust, and a terrific explosion, like the shattering of an icicle or a conker. The lightshow that followed was spectacular, as zillions of star-chunks drifted out into the night like fire balloons. As they faded, darkness returned to earth.

Every star fragment was lost, except one, which caught in Hermione’s hair. It might have stayed there for ever, like a halo, but in her confusion she flew into the branches of a chestnut tree. And though she came to no harm, the star halo fell off and broke into tiny pieces.

Each piece became a candle and lodged in the branches of the chestnut tree, where the flames burn brightly to this day. The candles begin as sticky buds in spring, and in autumn they become conkers. But for a few glorious weeks in May they blaze like the star Hamm and Hermione so nearly brought back to earth.