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In times when we need to keep watch or pray, a vigil light can give us comfort.

By Sharron Arksey

The ceramic vigil light is five inches tall and eighteen inches in circumference. It could easily accommodate a candle three inches in diameter. The candleholder and its base are a mixture of gray and beige with faint brown flecks, the colours of sand. The artisan painted delicate flowers and butterflies in muted shades of mauve, pink, yellow and blue, and the holes from which the light will shine differ in shape and size.

As soon as I see the vigil light in a Gimli, Manitoba gift store, I know that I will be taking it home with me.

“A vigil light?” my husband asks. “Did someone die? Who are you planning to hold a vigil for?”

No one. People hold vigils for the dead and dying, but a vigil can also mean a time of wakefulness during which we might keep watch or pray.

It is what I imagine many Icelandic families did, waiting for their kinfolk to come home from the sea or across the lava fields and glaciers. The colours of this vigil light speak of mists and fog, things that obscure vision and make it difficult to find our way home.

A vigil light when lit brings comfort.
A vigil light when lit brings comfort.

The artist who created my vigil light has an Icelandic surname. Perhaps she knows what it feels like to wait – not for an ancestor in Iceland, but closer to home on the shores of Lake Winnipeg. They call it the Big Lake. It is deep and can be treacherous in times of storm. And many generations have fished those waters.

My father and his brother had commercial ice fishing licenses on Lake Manitoba, a smaller and more shallow lake to the west of its bigger cousin. On winter afternoons, as the darkness gathered, we waited for their return. They drove over a frozen river to the place where it entered into the lake and returned by the same route.

Especially in the early and late months of winter, the ice was unreliable. Over the more than 40 winters that he spent ice fishing, my dad had several encounters with bad ice. One time, in particular, is clear in my memory. He and my uncle were driving a half-ton truck down the river when the ice gave way beneath them.

Both men were able to get out of the truck, but my dad could not scramble onto the surrounding ice. His reaching fingers slipped off time and again.

“Use your mitts,” my uncle yelled.

Dad dug out the woolen mitts that Amma knit for both her sons. The sodden wool stuck to the ice and gave him the purchase he needed. He climbed out of the water, and the two brothers walked to the nearest farm.

The truck still rests on the riverbed, a cautionary tale for those waiting as the candle burns.

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