A month shy of my twenty-fourth birthday, I bought a candle. Having decided to buy myself a birthday gift, I was wandering the aisles in my favorite home goods store when I found myself in the candle aisle. I spotted a label that read “Black Coffee” and I had to know if it really smelled like coffee. I pried the lid off, lifted the jar to my nose, and recoiled. The smell was right—so strong and bitter that I could nearly taste it. I placed the candle back on the shelf, ready to move on, but my hand brushed against another candle, this one in a pink glass jar. I opened that one too, and another, until my nose was overwhelmed by all the scents. An urge to take one home came over me. I had never wanted to buy a candle before. I didn’t mind receiving them, but I didn’t light candles. They collected dust on shelves and cabinets, waiting to be regifted. And yet, here I was, committed to finding and purchasing the best candle.
The candle came home with me. It sat on my desk expectantly while I rifled around looking for matches. The first match snapped in half. The second match lit, but burned too quick, and the flame touched my fingertip instead of the candle. The third match winked out before it came near the wick. The fourth match caught the wick, but both extinguished when I blew a puff of air on the match. The fifth match met the wick, and the wick alighted, and stayed that way. Delighted, I watched the flame dance and bounce off the sides of the orange glass jar. I examined my burnt thumb, held it over the flame, not too close, popped it in my mouth. It tasted like charcoal.
I lit the candle every night. It was like a small companion, a living thing I shared my space with. We gave each other plenty of space, the candle and I, knowing that one wrong move could send everything up in flames. Occasionally my breath or a paper would flutter too close, and the flame would flicker, a brief warning of the danger it held. So I kept my distance, and let its glow supplement my lamp as I read and wrote.
Some time later, when the world was gripped by the short days and long nights of winter, I noticed that the candle was burning low. I was sad for a moment, that my friend would soon extinguish for the final time, but then I remembered that I could buy a new candle. I could buy as many candles as I wanted.
This time, I didn’t go to the store. I felt too exposed the first time when I took up space in the aisle and lifted candle after candle to my nose. I opened a new browser tab and searched for candles. I couldn’t believe the variety! Though I couldn’t open them, I could imagine the smells as I read through the never-ending pages of candles. Ocean breeze. Warm apple spice. Pear and plum. Winter’s snow. They came in every color and scent imaginable. Some were inspired by characters from books and movies. Others conjured memories of childhood and holidays. Smell and memory are tightly entwined, but I never imagined they were so close that just reading a scent could propel one back to apple picking, age 9, or the first day of spring, age 11.
I ordered a quantity of candles that probably made the shop owner do a double-take, rub their eyes, wonder if it was a typo or if I was drunk. It was not a typo, and I was not drunk. Just enamored with candles and incapable of choosing.
My candles arrived in several shipments, and I eagerly awaited each new box. The first batch took their place on my desk. The second moved in on my nightstand. The third, my dresser. The fourth found a home on the kitchen counter; the fifth on the coffee table. And with that, I was out of surfaces.
At first, I would only light one per room, carefully choosing scents that complemented one another. It didn’t take long for me to light a second per room, and before I knew it, my studio apartment was drenched in the glow and scent of 25 candles.
As with my very first candle, which still sat in its place on my desk, though I no longer lit it, the new arrivals danced, and I tiptoed around them. I would occasionally go to start a task, only to find myself in the way of a candle, and so I would defer to the tiny flame and leave my task for the morning.
Sometimes, before bed, I turned off the lights and watched the little flames bounce and illuminate the room in their soft glow. It was a performance, choreographed especially for me, and never the same twice. My candles were individual dancers, their jars tiny stages, and they unwittingly formed a ensemble. They were clever, my candles, using their unique placement to throw shadows that resembled great landscapes and beasts, and creating magical worlds of their own. Amazing, I thought, that the candles were not alive, and yet they brought so much life to my house. And more amazing, still, that though each flame burned the same shape and color, white with a blue center, no two were ever exactly alike in the same moment.
I could tell that my candles needed more than I could give them in their current arrangement. Under my supervision, they were like a professional theater troupe without proper costumes, lights, or makeup. Raw talent, unpolished. I experimented with their placement and grouping, but still, something wasn’t right. I turned out the lights one night as usual and watched as their dance began, only to realize what was wrong: even with the lamps switched off, there were other sources of light interfering with my candles’ dancing. The oven and microwave clocks. The small red light on my charging laptop. The internet router. The light creeping under the door from the hallway. The lights from other apartments, cars, and streetlamps.
There was only one way to give my candles the darkness they needed to thrive. I closed all the blinds and I left the candles burning as I tiptoed down to the basement. I took my laundry basket with me, figuring I may as well collect my clothes from the dryer while I was downstairs. After all, it was four flights. In the dim laundry room, I averted my eyes from the cobwebs collected in corners as I scanned the room, looking for the fuse box. There—just to the left of the dryer. I collected my laundry first, held the basket on my hip, and opened the box. The circuit breakers weren’t labelled, but that hardly mattered. One by one, I flipped them all, even when the laundry room itself plunged into darkness. My hands scrabbled for the remaining switches until I was confident that I had gotten them all. One hand on the basket, I used the other to grapple my way back out, up the pitch-black stairs, and to my door. On each floor, I could hear the shrieks and grumbles of the other tenants, their nights interrupted by my meddling. I knew I wouldn’t have long, so I slipped into my apartment as quickly as I could, and the sight was mesmerizing.
Though the building had no power, a warm light flooded my studio. The candles, free from their battle with electricity, danced more furiously than ever before, as if even they knew their time was short. I dropped my basket, but stayed in the doorway, afraid of breaking their concentration. It was more than a dance, I realized—it was also a painting, a play, a song. Every artistic medium, rendered in flame. My candles had been trying to tell a story, and it was only now, with their performance unimpeded by artificial light, that I understood.
The power came back on after only ten or fifteen minutes, as I knew it would. Surely, someone had swiftly contacted the landlord, or gone to investigate the circuits themselves. I hoped they would place the blame on a ghost. As light drifted under the door again, and my devices beeped back to life, the candles resumed their regularly scheduled program. Beautiful, still, but no longer transcendent. From where I stood, I bent down and rifled through my laundry until I found a towel. I rolled it and stuffed it under the door. Careful to avoid the candles, I walked around and unplugged everything I could. I threw heavy blankets over the curtains. I picked up my lighter and leaned over the other candles on the desk to light my original candle. It jumped to life as if it had been waiting for this moment.
When I was satisfied, I sat on the couch and watched as the flames grew bright and frenzied once again. Something strange happened, too—they seemed to follow my original candle, which, though it was burned near to the quick, danced stronger than any of the others, the star performer. I let them tell their story for as long as I could keep my eyes open. As soon I felt myself drifting off, I stood and moved around the room in a dance of my own, extinguishing each candle, one through twenty-six.
After all, only a fool would let such a theater go up in flames.