This FICTION FRIDAY is a special one, because not only can you read it, you are also invited to listen to its narration thanks to the lovely and talented SpiritVoices! If you head over there, be sure to let her know who sent you!
I inherited Chandler’s Candles from my pa, who had inherited it from his grandma, who inherited it (I guess) from her ma or pa. It’s a dying art, honestly, and I will be the first to admit that. Artisan candles can be costly, and most potential patrons would much rather just run down to the supermarket and get one for a couple bucks, if that. I still do it though. I slave over hot wax and oils tirelessly. You get lost in it, see? Sometimes, I peer into my caldron, and I feel like I can see all the different forms it might take.
There is a reason why candles are a spiritual item for a lot of people; in fact, most of my profit is made off the Catholic church down the road. I get a call about every month requesting another crate of prayer, pillar, and taper candles. Somewhere in the order there is always a request for a vanilla scented sculpted candle. That’s my favorite. They never really detail the style they want, usually just saying “Use your imagination,” and I do. I spend more time on that one novelty sculpt than I do on all the other candles in the order combined.
I use white as a base, but as the candle grows in layers, I’ll add greens and blues and sometimes reds. While the wax is still warm, I cut it with my tools. As silly as it sounds, I put a lot of myself into those cuts: curls and peels, birds, flowers, leaves, and petals. When I am feeling especially crafty, I’ll sculpt the image of a saint, usually Mother Mary or Saint Peter. I like sculpting faces. I know I have done it right when I feel like it can actually see me. I like faces.
The sign hanging in my window says, “Open: 1-7 Tues-Friday. 11-8 Saturday. Closed Sunday and Monday.” This is only partially true, because my favorite clients come after hours exclusively, when the moon is high and the streets are hushed. I only ever see them once, but that is not such a bad thing. I miss them, yes, because they tell me stories. Sad stories usually, but special nonetheless. You know what is strange, though? The happy stories, the ones that make me laugh or smile, those stories are the ones I typically find the saddest in the end.
Once, a young man told me a story about his dog, Clementine. He told me the story of the time they got lost in the woods one winter. His parents had told him to not be gone for long because of the bitter cold winds, and he promised to be back before dark. All evening, the young man and Clementine played in the drifts of snow. They dug tunnels and even made a snow man. He would toss packed balls of snow into the air, and Clementine would leap after them, catching them in her teeth. In all of the fun, the young man lost track of time and space. He wandered in the direction that he believed home should be but only managed to get more disoriented in the forest that he had known all of his life. The snow had masked all the tell tale landmarks that usually guided him. The boulder that looked like a face. The fallen oak tree. The mushroom capped stump. After hours of searching, he sat down to cry until his eyes grew heavy and he fell into a deep sleep. He told me that he was grateful that Clementine found her way back home, though. She helped his parents find his body later that morning. I gave that man the brightest, prettiest candle I had in the shop at that time. I know, I know, it guided his way through that frozen night. And as I watched the pale aura of his iridescent glow get swallowed up into the dark, I believe in my heart of hearts that nothing could even come close as long as he held his brave little candle.
I didn’t open up the shop that next morning. I had too much to consider.
While I could fill countless pages with stories from my time at the shop, I would like to tell a story that happened just yesterday. It was a Tuesday, and Clovetown was sleepy. The chill that ran through the streets warded most from even leaving their homes that day, and I thought it fit to make some apple cider scented fills in hopes of coaxing out some patrons with their alluring scent. Fills take far less time than dipped candles; so, I can sell them for much cheaper (another alluring quality). While I waited for the wax to fully melt, I sat with a warm cup of tea, feeling quite clever.
My entrance bell rang, and I headed for the counter. A man stood there, muddy and shivering.
“Come in! Come in!” I plead, “You are soaking wet!” He looked at me a little stunned, as I guided him into his seat. “Jesus, you’re freezing! I’ll get you some tea.”
He blinks, “Thank you, young lady.”
I scurry to a kettle that sat on the stove and pour the liquid into a glass jar that would normally have been used for fills. I apologize for the container as I pass it off to him.
“It’s not a problem. It’s… Thank you again,” and he smiles, folding deep laugh lines along his aged face.
“Not a problem at all,” I say, and I notice a bruise on his head. “Do you need something for that?”
He taps the yellowing blemish and winces, “No, just a bruise.”
“Are you okay? Was there an accident?”
Shaking his head, he takes a sip of tea, “No. Well, yes. Sorry! Yes, I am okay, and no, there wasn’t an accident. Just some local kids having a laugh.”
“A laugh at you?”
He shrugs, “I’ve been around long enough to not care so much. Kids can be cruel, but old men are calloused.” He chuckles, then sucks on his teeth.
An anger burns in my stomach, “That won’t do! It’s-it’s-it’s-“
“It was a rock, a small one at that. I just bruise easy,” there is a warmth in his tone that soothes my anger.
I tell him that he can stay as long as he wishes and that I could even get him a bite to eat as well. I assumed him a vagrant, not by the state of his clothes, but by the character of his face. It told its own story of a home far, far away.
“You make candles!” he chimes, breaking me from the well of my thoughts.
“I do, indeed,” I take a sculpt off a nearby shelf and place it in his hands.
“I thought I must be by a bakery. I smelled apple pie,” he says, holding the candle beneath his nose.
“Apple cider actually,” I tell him, “I haven’t seen you before. Are you from around here.”
He laughs again, “No, not here. Out west, but I haven’t been there in a long time.”
“Are you staying in Clovetown?”
His brow furrows into a delicate arch, “For now, but I’ll be gone before long.”
Topping off his jar with the last of the kettle, “Passing through.”
“I’m always passing through somewhere. We all are, I guess. Passing through this year or this place. Passing by this person and that. Passing by. Passing by,” he swirls the tea.
My heart beats softly, “Where will you be passing by next?”
His smile returns, “Wherever I please. That’s the fun of it. No sense in getting blue about all the things you pass by. If you don’t, it will.”
“Well, I am glad you hadn’t passed me by. I may not have any other company all day.”
The two of us chatter about places and people for hours, and noticing that no work would actually get done (or needed to be done), I flick off the heat from my cauldron and leave it for another day. I notice, however, that the cauldron is already cold and the wax stiff. At some point, the power had gone out without either of us noticing since I usually illuminate my workspace with scrap candles that I don’t think will sell. This worries me little, and before long, I have already forgotten.
In time, I learn that his name is Bassam, and that his family had come from Israel before settling down in a Midwestern state that he wished not to disclose. I asked him if he had any siblings, but he would only say, “Not any more.” They had already “passed by.”
Bassam seems light despite his melancholy demeanor. He always looks thoughtfully lost in some rumination. He pauses before he speaks. He nods before he stands. Everything with the slightest of grins. The sun was setting on our day, when he mentions that he should be going, passing by.
“You are free to stay the night,” I tell him, trying to not scare him with too much sincerity.
“It is fine,” he says, “There is still much to see and many miles to go.”
“Where will you go now?”
“Perhaps southward,” he mumbles while scratching his stubble, “Perhaps not.”
I notice that he had been holding that sculpted candle the entirety of his stay when he goes to set it back on its shelf. “Keep it,” I say, and I hand him a box of matches from a drawer behind my desk. “It is awfully cold. Plus, you remind me of it. It would be too sad to look at it sitting lonely on display, reminding me of the kind stranger that stopped by one day.”
He inspects it with clear eyes, “Reminds you, eh?”
“With a little attention, it will burn brightly for a very long time. I couldn’t sell it to anyone at this point; as it seems to have been meant for you. I had originally fashioned it for the church down the street, but they sent it back, saying that they couldn’t fit another one. Their stores were still full from their previous order. So it sat up there on its perch, waiting for someone who needed a little light.”
He slides the matches in his pocket, and I wrap the candle in tissue then plastic wrap. I take some twine and a tag, knotting it around the gift. On it, I write, “Thank you for passing by. Sincerely, Jen.”
He thanks me and stares at the present for a long while. I give him his time, saying nothing.
Bassam leaves with a wave and another smile. The bell rings above the door, and he is gone. The rest of the day is occupied with cleaning and inventory. I am acutely aware of my passing by each and every article of my wares. I feel like I should greet them or maybe that I should tell them goodbye as I go. I laugh when I catch myself saying “excuse me” after bumping into a table. Every once in a while I consider going out for a drink or a bite to eat, but my shop is the coziest place on earth and is nearly impossible to leave once it has you bundled in its array of sights and smells.
When closing time comes, I drift to the window to shut the curtains for the night, ready for my more transient clients, should they choose to come. Just as I arrive at the window, it shatters. The shards fly through the air like the dusting of snow that is beginning to fall, and I hear a scream.
“Run!” I hear.
I throw my head out through the place where my window had once been. Three kids are rushing down the street as fast as their feet can carry them. That concerns me little, though. On a bench, just to my left, out of my line of site from most of the shop, sits Bassam. The wind moans through the surrounding alleyways, and I hope that he simply can’t hear me yelling for him. I don’t even put on my coat before running to the bench, through the snow and slush. I reach for the man when I arrive, but he is stiff. On and around the bench are stones, hailed from cruel children who don’t know that stick and stones hurt more than just bones. I find the strength to drag his nearly frozen body off his seat, down the sidewalk, and into the shop. His breathing is shallow, and his mouth quivers, forming specters of words.
I lie him on the floor and rush for a blanket to throw over him. It’s dark, and the violent gale snuffs out the candle light that normally nests safely inside. I’m attempting to wrap him him in the cover, but he is rigid. His breath no longer clouds their air about his face. His lips stand still. His frozen hands are weaved tightly around his candle that he holds to his chest, and I know he is gone.
They know he is gone too.
They always know. I pry the candle from his hands and use the matches in his pocket to light the wick, but the storm catches the tiny flame. It disappears, leaving behind a thin string of smoke. I strike another match and light the wick again, this time, shielding it with my whole body.
I can hear them slinking outside. They groan painfully and sometimes shriek without warning. I focus on the tiny, helpless flame as it holds tightly to its mooring.
“Please,” I beg, but they had already found us.
Their feet crunch on the broken glass as they surmount the window. The illumination that usually guarded the shop and drew in my wayward clients was gone. Well, mostly gone. We still had that single, tiny, courageous fire that could barely light even a small area around us, but it would work. It had to work. My patrons are mine and no others. My family had harbored them for centuries, giving them (as best as we could) the tools to brave the darkest of nights.
That night was no different.
It didn’t take them long to descend upon us, filling the shop from wall to wall. “Give him over,” they whispered, “He has already been marked.”
I bear my teeth. “No!” I growl, like a feral hound. “Mine!”
Their tongues lap against the ground impatiently. They pace the perimeter of our tiny fortress in one, formless mass. More emerge from the dark corners of the workshop as if the night itself was bleeding. Their threats, their demands, all of it was meaningless as long as I could guard that flame. Once during that night, another patron knocked upon my door, looking for a safe harbor just as so many had done before…
I didn’t even see their face. The night flooded out the window and devoured them before they could even scream. Cracks and crunches. Tearing. Rending and breaking. I didn’t even get to see their face. I blamed myself, obviously, and still do, but…
When they had their fill, they came back as expected. Some ventured a talonned hand into the glow but quickly retreated with a string of screeched and curses.
“Please,” they begged in unison, “We starve! We hunger!”
“He’s mine!” I yell again, and my heart nearly stops as I watch my breath threaten the flame.
I try to remember the prayers that I had heard from the Sisters, but they escaped me. I could only whisper a prayer of my own, “He’s mine. He’s mine. He’s mine.”
Over and over through the deathly hours of that long night. The damned mocked me. They pulled at my boots and tugged my hair.
“You will be soon. The light will go out. GO OUT! You will die; then you will be ours,” they groaned. “Spare him to us, and we will spare you.”
He’s mine. He’s mine. He’s mine.
“The man you called father, we remember. The car. The smoke. We remember. He squealed for mercy. He cried out your name when we found him. Did you know that? He is one of us. We are him. He is us. He is here.”
He’s mine. He’s mine. I clutch my eyes as tight as I can.
“The night has eyes, that even you cannot see. We are never filled. We wait on your doorstep, and you steal from us! You steal… you will be a feast. A feeeeasssssst.”
Then, all was still, still as an open grave, and I dare a slivered peak. The first crepuscular rays of morning peered over the horizon and through the phalanx of clouds above. The night was gone, slithered away into whatever darkened pit that would permit them. A winter breeze quietly shushed the curtain windows in front of me. The tiny candle, half spent, had conquered the deathly howls of the night. I could see its weak glow still waving at me proudly.
“Was I brave?” it asked me in its silent flickers.
“You were so brave.”
I hold it up into the wind and a tail of smoke passes by.