twenty-six dancing candles

Submitted into Contest #58 in response to: Write about someone who purposefully causes a power outage.... view prompt

33 comments

Drama

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. 

September 08, 2020 02:24

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33 comments

Kristin Neubauer
18:37 Sep 08, 2020

Maggie said it best when she called this story mesmerizing. Your writing actually allowed me to see all the candles dancing and glowing and transforming the apartment. The story actually lulled me into such a state that I forgot about the news conference I was supposed to be covering. Loved it!

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01:37 Sep 09, 2020

Thank you! I worried that I was using the same words for fire, dance, etc too much, and that they would lose their meaning. I'm really happy to hear you could visualize it. I hope I haven't caused too much work trouble for you by making you forget the conference!

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Doubra Akika
08:53 Sep 16, 2020

The ending was so perfect. Loved it! Such a beautiful story! I think you're a fantastic writer! Inserting bits of magic into something so mundane is such a hard thing to do but you did it with so much ease throughout your writing. The ending was simply phenomenal! I'm so glad I read this! Hope you're staying safe!

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20:00 Sep 16, 2020

Thank you for your kind comment! This one was a lot of fun to write and I also really like the ending, so I'm glad to hear that you did too!

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Doubra Akika
22:11 Sep 16, 2020

It was honestly my pleasure! If you get the time, I’d love your feedback on my recent story!

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Mindy Peterman
18:25 Sep 15, 2020

There is wonderful imagery in this story, as if those candles came to her by the divine will of the universe. We don't know much about your protagonist except she is 24, that she falls in love with candles and lives alone in a small apartment. But what's left to the imagination, for me, makes the story that much more intriguing. Thanks so much for the read.

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20:03 Sep 16, 2020

Thank you Mindy! I find that with short stories, I gravitate towards writing vague characters with only a few defining qualities for exactly the reason you mention - it leaves more to the reader's imagination.

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Lani Lane
01:20 Sep 14, 2020

Hi, Natalie! I first have to say that as a candle lover, this was relatable in a lot of ways. 😂 This story was a joy to read. My favorite sentences were these: ‘ 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.‘ I mean, wow!!! Just beautiful. Looking forward to more of your stories!

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20:06 Sep 16, 2020

Thank you Leilani! As I'm not much of a candle person myself, I'm glad this story has now been verified by a candle lover such as yourself. Now that the weather is getting cooler, I might start remembering to light the few candles I do have...

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Maggie Deese
03:24 Sep 08, 2020

This was such a beautiful, mesmerizing story, Natalie! I loved the simplicity of your words and how you are so easily able to entrance the reader with such a mundane topic. I loved your narrator, witty and blunt. Beautiful job with this one! If you are able, would you mind leaving some feedback on my story, "Splintered Like Firewood"? If not, I completely understand! Once again, wonderful job! :)

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13:12 Sep 08, 2020

Thank you Maggie! I wrote the first paragraph of this a while back and wasn't sure what to do with it. I came across the document again when I was brainstorming for this week's prompts and the idea occurred to me rather suddenly, like it had been waiting for me to find it. I will read your story a bit later today!

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Maggie Deese
14:43 Sep 08, 2020

That's so cool! I've done that plenty of times too with my own stories! And thank you! Also, how do you add on Goodreads? I have an account too, but wasn't sure how to add you as a friend!

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15:17 Sep 08, 2020

I just added you!

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Maggie Deese
15:34 Sep 08, 2020

Great!

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08:55 Mar 07, 2022

Lovely-smelling candles with jewelry inside. I love these candles. 100% natural coconut soy wax candles featuring hidden jewelry (rings, earrings, and necklaces) and packed with over 10% fragrance load to fill any space.

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18:35 Feb 08, 2021

candles in a dark room seems mysterious!

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Rachael Cameron
22:09 Sep 12, 2020

oh i loved this! i don't light candles anymore because of a very curious cat, but this made me want to buy 26 candles and find spaces for them to perform.

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20:10 Sep 16, 2020

ah yes, the eternal struggle of being a pet owner and wanting to have nice things... that reminds me of the time my friend's dog turned on a stove burner and nearly burnt her house down. pets and fire cannot be trusted. anyway, thank you!

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Patricia Adele
20:03 Sep 12, 2020

Wonderful writing Natalie! I wasn't sure which direction this story was going to go off in. My first thought was that anything can cripple a person or render them paralyzed. But no there you went way over to the other side and I thought she was becoming a pyromaniac and y become so obsessed that the apartment would be set aflame. Right then, I became worried about the state of mind and before I could wring my hands; off to the basement doing a regular task. But then. Oh no! The candles are going to set the blinds on fire and the whole plac...

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20:13 Sep 16, 2020

Hi Patricia, reading this comment was like riding a rollercoaster! Was that the feeling you got while reading the story? I didn't think of it as a very exciting story, but it is fascinating to see how others read into it! As I was writing I did have the thought that people might expect it to go in the direction of "she set the whole apartment on fire!" but that wasn't a twist I wanted to do, so I twisted it in the other direction. Some might call that boring, but I call it subverting expectations. Thank you for reading and commenting!

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Anshika Goyal
11:56 Sep 12, 2020

I came to this story because the title seemed hilarious and it was a good decision. I loved this story!! You have narrated it well, most writers don't know how to show which is why the use mostly dialogues, but you made an exception. I like how this was a short read which is why it kept me hooked throughout. By the way, congrats on the concept!! I would love it if you check out two of my recent stories.

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Jade Young
10:38 Sep 12, 2020

You have such a way with words. I was drawn in from the very first line, and I just know that this story will get stuck in my head. The descriptions were so vivid and beautifully written that I could picture even something as small as a flickering candlelight so vividly. I wish this story was longer so that I have an excuse to keep reading. You are such a talented writer. I'm definitely looking forwards to more from you in future ;)

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20:20 Sep 16, 2020

Thank you so much, Jade! I'm trying to practice my descriptions, because I often get so caught up in dialogue or internal monologue that I forget to set a scene, so I thought it would be fun with this one to focus on inanimate objects. It's a strange little story, that's gotten stuck in my head too, and I'm not even sure why!

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Jonathan Blaauw
14:38 Sep 10, 2020

What a beautiful story! I have only right now realized I’ve taken candles for granted my entire life. I think truly gifted writers are able to insert some magic into the mundane, everyday things a lot of people barely spare a conscious thought for. That's what you’ve done here because watching the dancing flames (and that’s exactly what they do, they dance, they perform, just like you’ve described) of a fire in any form, candle or otherwise, really is mesmerizing. Your stories often inspire deep contemplation, and now I’m thinking candle...

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21:29 Sep 10, 2020

Oh no, now I'm terribly worried that candles don't cast shadows! I rarely light them and never actually noticed, but I was thinking that with so many, and with the lights out, surely there'd be some shadows? I guess I need to go purchase 26 candles, rent a studio apartment, and cause a power outage. Might take me a bit, but I'll report back. I'm so happy you picked up on those two lines. The perspective shift is intentional - I wanted to create the sense that this narrator is captivated as well as compelled by the candles. I like what yo...

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Jonathan Blaauw
13:50 Sep 11, 2020

I wouldn't worry about candles. Fires have been doing their shadowless thing for a while now (since before the wheel, and even the internet, I think!) and they seem to get by okay. I will definitely add those to my reading list. I don't think you overexplain. This platform is my favorite place on the internet because we can read and interact with the writers of out favorite stories. I love finding out what inspired a story. For example, I was convinced you had a candle addiction and were channeling your urges through this story before you e...

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14:38 Sep 11, 2020

Nope, no candle obsession here, but I did purchase 5 book-themed candles on Etsy as gifts for my friends last week (okay, I also got one for myself). I mentioned in a comment to Maggie that I wrote the first paragraph of this story a few months ago, and didn't know what to do with it until now. So the part about impulse buying a candle in a home goods store before my 24th birthday, and needing 5 matches to light it? One hundred percent true.

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Yolanda Wu
06:51 Sep 10, 2020

Wow, you really brought that candle to life. I was so intrigued throughout the story, and how you linked the candle to the narrator's whole character and psychology was really well done. Your writing is just to die for, I mean you have two winning stories so I wouldn't say I'm surprised. Oh yes, I am a sucker for punchy last sentences that really leave me wondering and wishing for more, but at the same time it's perfect. Your last sentence was exactly that. Amazing work!

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14:16 Sep 11, 2020

Thank you Yolanda! I also love a good last line, and when I thought of that one I just knew I had to use it.

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Christina Hall
05:11 Sep 09, 2020

Well done, great imagery with your descriptions and a very unique take on the prompt.

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A. S.
03:14 Sep 09, 2020

This story was beautiful. Your descriptions brought the candles to life as if they really were your protagonist’s friends. I could see the flames dancing and the shadows shifting when I closed my eyes. Would you be willing to read my story “Thorns” and let me know what you think in the comments?

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Bianka Nova
15:22 Sep 08, 2020

Ah, the dangers of candle addiction. I think your protagonist might have lit a few marihuana scented ones among the 26 😄. I enjoyed the story very much. Beautifully written!

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The Cold Ice
12:17 Sep 08, 2020

Good story.Great job👍keep it up. Would you mind to read my story “The dragon warrior?”

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