Caroline smiled contentedly as she navigated traffic, her treasure tucked securely in the back amongst the jumper cables. It was luck that she’d driven Route 20 back from Connecticut, craving the comfort of the quiet, rolling hills rather than the fast, gray straightaways of the Mass Pike. The old red barn of a craft shop had put a sign out - free wax for the taking. Her trunk now contained several oddly shaped blocks of wax - green and red - perfect colors for the holidays. Yes, life was finally thawing to her again.
She hummed the whole way home, her ‘stang streaking along the dusty back roads. “If I was a rich man, yiddle dee ...” It didn’t seem like late October. The leaves were almost done turning, but the weather was no-jacket warm. She kept her passenger side window partially rolled down. Not the driver’s side - that would tangle her hair, dragging long tendrils out alongside the car to knot in abandon. Her hair was almost at that annoying length where it caught behind her back, tugged at her neck as she sat forward. She half-wanted to cut it shorter, but she liked feeling like a medieval princess, a Japanese geisha.
She downshifted as she entered her own neighborhood, turning past the horse farm on the corner. She felt her shoulders ease as she slid the car in through the stone walls on either side of her driveway. She’d always loved these lengths of granite and limestone. They reminded her of her youth, out in the woods on the Nipmuc Trail with her father, tracking down the elusive field boundary. Remnants of old homesteads, where their ancestors had farmed. Her father was a genealogist, bringing her to graveyards and research facilities. He’d married three times, maybe so he’d always have a new family to study. She didn’t know.
Caroline turned off the engine and hit the garage door opener. The space beyond was too crammed with the debris of her life to actually put the car into. She wished she could use it for its proper purpose - it would be a sweet luxury once the snow came. Not that she could actually go anywhere in the snow in her ‘toboggan’ of a vehicle - an inch of white powder and she called into work snowbound. She supposed she could get another car to drive during the winter, but would she want to be *seen* in something else? She loved her Mustang. Her friend had a matching white GT, same year. While he worked on adding in anti-sway bars and suspensions, she put her money into a pair of cobalt blue stripes. ‘Better to look good than to feel good, dahling.’
She lugged the wax blocks into the basement and dropped them in a corner. Inspiration tickled at her mind. Digging through the piles of holiday decor, she pulled out her bags of candle molds and wicks and dragged them upstairs to the kitchen. The sun felt very warm; she opened the sliding glass door and watched the cats press their noses against the screen. Neither had claws; they wouldn’t last an hour outdoors, she thought to herself with a chuckle. The claws had to go to protect her stereo speakers. Now the cats watched the world go by, plaintively, from behind a protective shield. A squirrel wandered by the back bird feeder, and Caroline thought about going for the air rifle ... the rodent, blissfully unaware of impending butt-pain, changed its mind and scampered into the back woods. She gazed after it for a moment, then went back to preparations.
A pot of water was set to boil on the stove. She prepared the mold halves with wicks, then wrapped masking tape around them to seal them shut. She remembered the first time she’d made candles in St. Louis, with a friend who she had met over the internet. They hadn’t realized the molds needed to be taped shut; when they poured the hot wax into a sphere shape, it began separating back into the two halves. Pam had cried out in panic as she tried desperately to hold the mold together while Caroline frantically taped over the seeping wax. A disaster at the time, but they’d laughed about it for weeks afterward. Caroline was notorious for starting things without knowing what she was doing. Then she would struggle, halfway through, pushing and prodding to get towards the goal.
The water was ready. Caroline grabbed some tin cans from the recycling bin and lined them up on the counter island. Using a hammer and chisel, she broke off a few colored shards from her wax icebergs and added them in. This was great. Free wax, a little work, and she had ready-made presents for her friends. People paid so much for large candles now, when really they were no work at all. People just didn’t know. They didn’t want to do anything for themselves any more. It was easier for them to pay top dollar for a simple cylinder that took ten minutes to make. She grabbed her tongs and slowly lowered the wax-filled cans into the simmering water.
The cats curled up to sleep in the late afternoon sunlight. The more flimsy birds had all headed south - the goldfinches and red finches and even the one hummingbird that she’d seen infrequently by her petunias. All that was left were the winter residents - titmice, chickadees. The juncos had come back down from Canada. Strange that they knew when it was safe to visit, when the competition had vacated the feeders.
The wax thermometer hit the mark, and she took the pot off the stove. This was the tricky part. Carefully she lifted all three tin cans out of the hot water and placed them on folded newspaper. Then she took each one in turn and poured it slowly into the various molds. She’d collected the shapes over the years - an owl, a Buddha, a mushroom. The tall pillar, and the little fish. She filled the smaller ones first, then put the remaining molten color into the pillar. Pillars were easy - you filled them up until you ran out of wax. They simply were the height you stopped at. She wondered idly if people worked the same way, just ended up the way they had to end up based on the layers of life piled on their heads.
She went into the living room to wait while the candles cooled. It was a little chilly now; she opened the flue in the fireplace and put in a fire log. She sighed a moment before lighting it. Steve had always liked the ´fire logs´ better than real wood because they cleaned up more easily. She had reluctantly given in. Now she used them because ... well, just because. She lit the log, and watched as the cats left the now cold kitchen and came to bask in the warmth. She tenderly pulled the Siamese back before he singed his fur. The vet had once showed her where he developed small welts because he sat too close to the fire. The doctor said this was a common, inconsequential ‘malady’ found in many rural cats.
The log began to blaze, and she went back in the kitchen to heat up some frozen Indian food. The microwave hummed as it warmed the palak paneer. She poured herself some plum wine and waited. The wax cooled in the molds, creating depressions in their centers as they hardened and shrunk. She took a skewer from the drawer and poked at the candles, releasing the small bubbles of trapped air. The surrounding wax sunk inwards. She put some more wax into a tin can and started it melting again, to fill in the now sunken centers of her candles.
The microwave beeped and she brought her dinner and the wine into the living room, sitting in front of the fire. The cats came over and sniffed at her plate before settling down again. It’d been like this six months ago when the police had come, ringing the front door bell. She knew right away something was off. Nobody ever came to the front door. It was a vestige from another time, from an era when people visited each other, rapping the big, gold eagle knocker, exchanging hugs and laughter. She had pulled the heavy door open with trepidation, and knew from the officers’ eyes that the news was final. They said Steve had died quickly, in a high speed accident on the Pike. A semi in front of him had dodged to avoid another car and had slammed his pick-up truck off the road. He hit the bridge doing 70. Didn’t feel a thing.
Her timer went off; back to the kitchen to add another layer. She poured the wax into the small depressions in the candle molds. Filling in the holes. She waited a bit while they cooled again, sinking down less this time. Poked with the skewers as the wax cooled, and shrunk, leaving wells as it did so. Better, but not quite right. It never quite became right. You got as close as you could. She put some more wax in the tins, heated up the water again.
The cats were sniffing her plate. Did they like spinach? She didn’t think cats were vegetarians. On the other hand, they always went crazy for the catnip she grew in her garden each year. Steve had built that for her when she first moved in, a perfect home for her herbs. She’d grown sage, chives, oregano, and rosemary. Somehow it was the catnip that got used the most, sprinkled over the heads of the cats. Steve would laugh as their eyes grew huge and they chased imaginary mice around the house.
She walked around the kitchen, not feeling hungry. She took another sip of her plum wine, watching the thermometer approach the mark. She would give these candles four layers, she decided. Good enough. She’d never fill the hole completely; each layer got closer to filling it, but they never really did. There was always a mark left. Maybe that made them real, made them honest creations. She shrugged and patiently waited for the wax to melt.