What would happen if you woke up one day to discover what you once called love had nothing to do with the genuine article?
What is love to suburbans but convenience and addiction? They hook up on the basis of how blown their minds get during sex; once married, their "love" devolves further into nothing more than convenience. Everything becomes a brochure item with its own bullet point.
Allison Oberlan once believed, like all her friends and family, that was what love was. But an encounter with a candle vendor at a Renaissance fair has since nagged at her ever since. He gave her what he said was a magical candle that would only light for a powerful wizard's true love, one the wizard had been seeking for a thousand years.
Allison, bemused, took the candle and left the vendor to rejoin her fiance.
We rejoin her in the second chapter just before she makes an amazing discovery.
The Flame from now to Now
SHE RUBBED her forehead. The headache was only a dim threat, but she'd felt these dim threats enough to know to take care of it immediately. She shuffled to her kitchen. She held a cell phone to her ear as she opened a cabinet. She was speaking to her mother.
“John? I suppose he's okay, I really don’t know…. Why do you always—? Really, Mother, could you be more obvious? I know you think he's a 'great catch' and that all the women at Dad's office would 'just die to land him.' You've said all this before … Why don’t you marry him since you’re so fond of him? Huh? Well, I think I have a right to a little snideness here. Hold on …”
She poured herself a glass of water. She studied the four orange pills in her palm with cold indifference, thinking: If these were cyanide, would I hesitate taking them right now? She heard herself say, “No, you know something, Mother, I'm not being snide; I’m just getting sick of you and everybody else micromanaging my—what? No. What? No, I don't want to be some pauper's wife. John is wealthy, from a good family, yadda, yadda, yadda ... I’ve heard all this before. You said it last week, remember?”
She brought her hand to her mouth, tossed her head back. She felt the pills on her tongue before mixing them with water and swallowing; she refilled the glass and drank its contents completely, ignoring her mother's rebuke for drinking while talking on the phone. She sighed, pausing in mid-exhalation before saying, “Mother, you have nothing to worry about. John is everyone's fantasy man. And he'll be my husband next June, just eight months away. Happy now?”
She hung up after several more minutes of tense conversation. Her head throbbed.
She dragged herself to her bedroom. As she passed the living room she looked outside. Her apartment was on the twenty-third floor of one of
swankier hi-rise residential communities. The drapes were open. Brilliant yellow
streamers of mid-afternoon sunlight washed over the furniture and carpeting,
inviting her to nap. She thought: I’ve
been napping a great deal lately. Maybe because my life sucks? Maybe because I
don’t have a life, it’s somebody else’s life, and whenever I think I’ve found
the owner it changes hands—maybe?
The front range was magnificently visible, a rising crescendo of green-on-blue melting into sharp peaks of white far beyond. She looked at those majestic peaks and felt nothing.
Under the banal white fluorescent lighting of her office a week later she found herself studying her engagement ring. It sparkled coldly: two karats, princess cut, a platinum ring—impeccably crafted. She held the clear, brilliant stone between the index finger and thumb of her right hand; she held it there, squeezing it harder and harder. She thought: They say diamond is the hardest substance in the universe. Can it be any harder than the numbness I’m feeling right now? She looked at the white flesh of her fingers, flushed of blood, and the diamond’s angry whiteness.
Am I in love?
She considered her friend Rachel. Rachel, who had said at dinner the evening prior:
“What’s ‘in love,’ Allie?”
“I don't know,” Allison muttered. “A ... a sense of fitness, of joy, of togetherness, passion? A knowing—no, it’s deeper than that—a feeling? an intuition?—that he is the one. That he is The One. That sense of communion. Of passion. Am I making any sense?”
Rachel sighed and shook her head, the long, flowing body of her brunette hair lazily following the motion. She took a sip of white wine before declaring, “You forget, girl. I’ve heard this schpeel before—many times. I’m sorry, Al, but you're naive. Pure, sad, innocent—and totally naive. I thought time would’ve finally erased that.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because you insist on continuing to believe in all that fairy tale bullshit, that's why. Time to check into reality, girl. It's dog eat fucking dog out there—that’s reality. It's time you put The Princess Bride back on the shelf, okay? God, I hate that movie. It's time you woke up. John is financially independent, has a monster future, is very good-looking, has ambition, has drive. That's all that matters, Allie; that's all. Passion fades. It goes away. It goes away forever. After my brother’s wedding my grandpa, dirty old coot that he was, told him to put a penny in a jar each time he and his new wife had sex for the first two years, then starting their third year to take two pennies out each time they did it. He said that penny jar would still have money in it when they celebrated their twenty-fifth anniversary.”
“That's reality, Al. Get used to it. Sex is so overrated. I mean, sure—you and I and a few others had some wild times, didn't we? But it's meant for teenagers. It's meant to continue the species. That's it. We can do without it. We're grown women. I mean, look at me. I've been married to Richard for ... how long? Five years? In the beginning, we had sex at least three times a week. That lasted maybe a year. It’s down to four times a year. And to be completely honest, I wouldn't mind if that number were cut in half, or a fourth. Give me a good vibrator and Robin Hood from Once Upon a Time. That's plenty for me, quite frankly.”
Allison looked at her food with a cottony, glazed-over stare. It had long since become cold and flat, like day-old leftovers mined from the refrigerator. She had lost her appetite before the appetizers had even appeared. She wondered if food was like sex as well: essential, but only while it stayed hot, and only for the ravenous, ignorant young who didn’t know it could be discarded. She suddenly felt a twinge of fear, as if she would soon be starving to death.
Rachel said, “Let it go, Allie. I can see it in your eyes. That little girl, that romance shit, that 'come and sweep me off my feet' look we used to tease you about in high school. I thought you'd have gotten over that by now. Bottom line? Sexual passion dies. Financial passion never does. And your John is the most passionate man I know.”
He had bought her lingerie for her birthday: a red silk baby-doll nightie with matching thong panties. She sighed as she looked at herself in his bathroom mirror. The material was delicate and very expensive and she knew that it would be off her body in five minutes. She looked at herself, at her face, appraising both impersonally, as if she were judging another for a photo shoot. She had a very pretty face: high cheekbones, large green eyes, wavy shoulder-length dirty-dishwater blonde hair, strong shoulders, cute, pert breasts, a flat, trim tummy, gorgeous long legs. She turned and inspected herself, looking over her shoulder. The thongs framed her buttocks beautifully, a thin, curvy pair of lines just visible through the negligee. She was twenty-eight years old; and, she felt, she was attractive, perhaps even beautiful. But something was missing. Something essential. Her physical beauty was only a minor part of it; and without it her physical beauty was reduced to nothing—
“C'mon, baby!” came John’s bellow from the bedroom. “Little Johnny wants to give Big Johnny his well-deserved present....”
She leaned forward until her nose almost touched the cold silver plane of the mirror. She looked into the soft ovals of her eyes, looked until they started losing shape, losing meaning—
“Allie, what the fuck is taking you so long? I've got an important meeting early tomorrow morning! I want to have a little fun and hit the hay.... Now c'mon!”
“A little fun,” she whispered at the image in the mirror. She saw the fog of her breath form on its surface at the bottom periphery of her vision. Passionless, but a little fun. Meaningless, but financially independent. White wine and appetizers ...
She opened the door to his bedroom, turning off the light to his cavernous bathroom, and forced a weak smile to her lips. John lay in bed, bathed in the flickering ghost light of ESPN sounding quietly from the flat-screen television on the opposite wall. The silk sheets barely covered his half-erect penis, which lay at an odd angle to his bulging, hairy, pasty-white stomach. His chest was normal, by male standards, a tuft of curly brown hair growing between his nipples, a chest slightly sunken and without much vitality. His arms weren't particularly defined or strong, but normal, and his face—round, with brown eyes, a normal chin, a normal nose, and curly brown normal hair—was normal. All normal. Here he is, ladies, she thought. Here is The Catch. The
The million-and-a-half-dollar-a-year sycophant to my father. Come and get ‘im
“Baby, you look magnificent ...”
She crawled into bed, turning off the lamp as she pulled herself under the cold, slippery sheets. He clicked the remote, killing the television. With no feeling whatsoever, she kissed him. He opened his mouth widely, jamming his tongue into her mouth, moaning. “Oh, yeah,” he slathered, “come to poppa. Daddy's got a nice birthday present for his Allie cat ...”
She broke away. “Jesus! Can't you just be romantic for once, John?”
He laughed and climbed on top of her. “Baby, this is romantic. The only thing we need now is a candle. Wish you'd brought that lunky piece of crap with you from that fairy fair four months ago. Remember that candle, Allie? We could make love by romantic candlelight. Woohoo! Oh, well ...”
She looked into his eyes. She felt nothing. Absolutely nothing. She wondered why she was there, wondered what had brought her here, wondered why she had once thought this was love ... She wondered what love was. Had she ever felt it even once her entire life?
“I remember,” she said.
“Where'd you put it? Throw it away?”
“No, I never took it out of its box.”
“My Allie cat, the pack rat.”
He made love to her then—no, he fucked her then: heavy, slobbering kisses, the feel of his round, pooching stomach pressing down on hers, the feel of his middling penis inside her. Gruff pinching and pulling of her nipples. The ponderous slapping of his hips on hers. More groaning. A flourish as he came, his face tightening in ecstasy above her. He collapsed on top of her, exhausted, his face in her neck. It was just like his business deals: to the point, done with urgency, done with selfish resolve; then, with the conquest of the territory or the enemy company, the powerless have-nots safely pacified or liquidated, the victory cry. She found herself thinking numbly of the candle.
She pulled it out of its plain brown box and placed it on her coffee table, studying it. She had thought of it often since her birthday a week ago, but now she needed it: the snowstorm swirling angrily outside had knocked the power out of her entire building. Her apartment had gone pitch black in an instant, her computer dead, her cell phone the only working device left.
She had fumbled about in her closet for it. It had long since been buried beneath a pile of winter turtleneck sweaters she rarely wore anymore, ones she never had gotten around to giving away at Goodwill.
She got up and found a book of matches, came back and sat. She examined the wick, which was partially buried in the wax, and then pried it free with her thumb. She thought of the handsome dark man: the mysterious vendor who had told her that lovely, sad story of a candle that would light only for a sorcerer’s true love. His sparkling blue eyes. His strong countenance. His long black hair. She remembered repeating the story to John, who didn’t listen to a single word of it, but jumped down her throat all the way back to Denver, lecturing her on how much more important his business was than her ridiculous flights of fancy, how she had been gone nearly an hour, and how he had missed a very important meeting because of her. She remembered running into her apartment, where, crying, she threw the box with the candle in it across the bedroom into a wall. She had left it where it lay for weeks before dumping it in her closet and forgetting about it.
She struck a match and held it to the wick, smiling. What a lovely story, she thought. What could be lovelier than if it were true?
If it were true ...
The wick caught in a tiny shower of sparks. A thin blue flame wavered in and out of existence briefly, struggling for a hold, before blooming into a bright and steady yellow-white teardrop.
How lovely if it were true....
She looked peacefully into the flame, watching the hot wax pool beneath it slowly, a shimmering clear circle, a brilliant liquid lens peering skyward. She recalled the vendor’s warning never to touch the wax. She reached a hand towards the flame, her index finger approaching ...
… stopped. She leaned her head in closer, examining it. She brought her finger closer—not to the wax, but to the flame. She waved it over the flame.
The flame—had no heat!
She blinked in disbelief. She brought the palm of her hand over the flame's wavy tip and held it there. No heat! She put her other hand over it, feeling panicked that she had somehow lost nerve function in her extremities. Nope. She could feel no heat in the flame—none at all! She got up and grabbed a piece of notebook paper on the kitchen counter next to her phone, held it over the flame, watched it catch. The flame eating up the paper had plenty of heat! She blew it out hastily, then rose and pounded the fire alarm with a broomstick until its piercing staccato shriek was silenced. She came back and tried it again with a napkin, with an old dishrag, with a spoon. All burned or heated up very quickly. She plopped down before the flame, utterly puzzled and enraptured. Hours passed. She heard the phone ringing. She ignored it. Eventually, she took a deep breath, sat up, and placed her face directly over the tip of the flame. No heat! She lowered her nose to its very tip, then swished her hair over it. She lowered her eye until the steady, brilliant flame kissed her pupil. Nothing! The flame would not harm her, would not burn her. Her heart pounded in amazement. She wrapped her hands around the thick stalk of the candle and inhaled deeply: the wax left a spicy-sweet odor in the air, one that faded in and out of consciousness, one that teased her mind playfully. When she didn't think of it, there it suddenly was; and when she focused on it, it was nowhere to be found.
She carefully lifted the candle and went to her room, studying it closely as she placed it on the nightstand next to her bed. She watched it as she felt the warmth of slumber overcome her.
The spicy scent flirted with her. She'd wake from a half-sleep, smiling, giggling, warmly reassured that the odor was still there. It was the first time she had giggled in years. She giggled, and heard herself giggle, then would dreamily look again at the flame and giggle some more. She'd reach out from the depths of the covers and touch the cool, solid wax, touch the flame. She thought of an ancient sorcerer, now aware that his love had been found. He could die now happily, she thought. His quest was over. The candle had lit.
She found herself walking in a beautiful meadow.
She wore a simple dress, one light and free on her body, an afterthought against her flesh.
Moments later she found the
hot springs and the waterfall cascading down
into them. It wasn't long before she stood naked under it, breathing in the
heat, the pounding liquid massaging her nerves into a state of frenzied sexual
readiness. She felt her knees shaking, weak with pleasure. She laughed, but
could not hear herself, as if laughter was already understood and unnecessary,
as if this place had already answered her joy with its own.
She swam in the pool before climbing out, letting herself dry on pink granite bathed by a bright yellow sun directly overhead.
She walked under pine that whispered their love to her, as if they had waited for her for millennia, as if she had defined their existence, and now so defined could finally drink deeply from the waters of satisfaction and rest. She touched the soft needles and watched squirrels play in the branches above her. Her feet fell upon a dry, spongy soil that made her believe for an instant that she could fly. She walked happily towards a small rise, where the pine parted.
At the summit she stopped. Before her opened an enormous valley, lush and green, one that ran away from her in an astonishing yawn to infinity. On her right side a cluster of hills ran to small granite outcroppings that kissed an achingly bright blue sky. But to her left ...
She looked and could not look away.
The valley rose steeply, sharply on this side, the pine sweeping like crashing green surf into a severe, jagged ridgeline that climbed in great steps to the sky as it fled away. At the very end of its length it exploded upward into a sudden cliff face thousands of feet high. Way up there a castle grew out the face and into the firmament, into an impossible dream, its high towers proudly tossing long, thin shadows to the valley floor below.
Allison stopped breathing. When the air finally came, it did so in sips, with conscious effort. Her mind, at once at peace but also wild like a hurricane, desperately sought for balance, for some sense of proportion, of equilibrium. She had touched the very center of her happiness, and it had shattered her misery, dazzling her like a floodlight. She cried with tears of recognition, as if she had finally found herself, had found her home, a home she had known since before she was born.
She woke with a start. She came up, breathing heavily, her eyes wide. After several moments of unfocused confusion, she realized she had been dreaming. She breathed deeply, looking around herself, reorienting herself. She caught the spicy-sweet scent at the edge of her consciousness and turned her head to look.The candle burned peacefully, faithfully next to her bed, next to her. It had not shrunk an inch.