The Paper Lantern

Ruvanee Pietersz Vilhauer

It was Gaga, my grandpa, who told me about Vesak lanterns.

Vesak is a holiday.  People celebrate it in Sri Lanka, Gaga said, but not here in the United States.  Vesak is for remembering Lord Buddha, a teacher who lived a long time ago.  Lord Buddha was very wise, and he understood the truth about everything.

In May, on the day of Vesak, people wear white clothes.  The smell of incense floats in the air.  Roadside stalls serve food for free.  There are theaters in the streets, with plays and puppet shows.  Flags flap, drums beat, and people dance and sing.

At night, Vesak is a festival of lights, winking on the city streets.  A full moon beams in the sky.

And best of all, Gaga said, there are paper lanterns.  They are strung outside houses, from roof beams and tree branches.  They are every color you can imagine, yellow and lime-green, pale orange and red like fire, sky-blue, clean white.  Tails trail from them, rippling and waving.  Inside the lanterns are dipping, dancing flames.  They make the lanterns come alive, shining like happy souls.

I wanted to have a lantern, to share Gaga’s memories.  So together, we made one.

We bought red and white tissue paper from the drug store.  It was so thin we could see our hands through it.   We took it home.  We cut out paper squares.  Our scissors clicked, and the paper rustled softly.

We made a frame with sticks from the garden.  We used the straightest sticks we could find.  We glued the paper to the frame.

The lantern was open on the top.  There was a place inside for a candle.  We put a candle there, held firm with wax.  We hung paper tails from the corners, red and white.  I watched for night to fall, for Gaga to light the lantern.

I asked Gaga, when will the sun set?  Wait, he said, smiling.  When it is time, it will.

Dusk came at last, and he lit the candle.  He hung the lantern high, from a branch of the maple tree.

The lantern was glorious.  Its tails flowed down.  It gleamed in the dark.  The flame inside was strong.  Gaga and I sat outside, watching it.

When the wind started, I didn’t worry.  It was only a breeze at first.  Leaves shivered, shshshshhhh, and the branches sighed, owhoooohaaaah.

The wind blew harder, and the maple tree shook.  The lantern swung.  Its tails whipped back.  And then the lantern caught fire.

I shouted, no, no, no!  But it was too late.  Flames ran over the paper.  They ate up the lantern.

The wind gusted.  It caught up the lantern, and tossed it in the air.

The fiery tails rose up over the trees.  I cried, seeing them drift away.  My beautiful lantern was gone.

Gaga hugged me, and stroked my hair.  It was time for it to go, he said.  It was here for the night. It did its work.  It was beautiful.  Now its ashes will float up to the sky, he said.

We lay outside and watched the stars, hanging like a million lanterns in the sky.  The darkness was warm.  The crickets sang.  Frogs chirped.  The air smelled of cut grass.  Gaga told me stories.  It was a good Vesak.

Next year, we will make another lantern and set its light loose on Vesak night.

Evocative images, an original premise and a touching relationship make this a winning text. Delicately rendered and moving.
—Katherine Applegate, 2014 Katherine Paterson Prize Judge

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