Wednesday, August 8, 2018

A Bath-Time Candle

She peeled off the single strip of sticky tape, and pulled apart the tissue paper in which it had been wrapped.  “Very special candle,” she said to herself, imitating the middle eastern accent of the man in the market who’d sold it to her.  She sniffed at it.  The scent was still clear and strong, but definitely unfamiliar.  She placed it on the tiled ledge that surrounded her bath, a little away from the other candles that stood there.  She turned the taps and poured in the bath mix.

When it was full and the foam thick and inviting on the water’s surface, she took a lighter from a shelf and bent to light the candles, leaving the latest addition until last.  It was the least substantial of them all, yet there was something about its richly marbled, ochre red surface that had attracted her to it as it lay on the barrow where she’d bought it.  Something about that unfamiliar scent, too – a little spicy, a little like cedar-wood, a little of meadow flowers.  He needn’t have said a word, that seller.

She slipped off her dressing gown, hung it on the door and switched off the bathroom light.  As always, when she undertook this pleasant ritual, the tiny bathroom was transformed.  The perfect little flames, the warm steamy atmosphere, the mingling fragrances – all brought a sense of exotic cosiness to the bare functional room, with its plain white tiles, compact sink and mirrored cabinet.  That feeling was enhanced by the soft sensations of lowering her body through the foam and into the water, until all that could be seen of her – were there anyone to observe – was her face peering through the foam.

She was calm.  At ease.  Somewhere outside that door, the world and its hassles ground grimly on, but here she was detached and secure.  Nothing struggled to suck her attention, no desperate problems demanded that she conceived a solution.  Not now.  Not here.  This was refuge.

Thus, when she became aware of a series of sputtering sounds and raised her head slowly to see what was their source, she felt no sense of perturbation to discover that all the other candles had extinguished themselves, one or two of their wicks still smoking.  Yet the new candle still burnt with a generous flame.  It was sufficient. 

It was curious that the others had gone out.  She would investigate later.  She lowered her head back into the water, immersed in the crackle of tiny bubbles bursting, and closed her eyes.

That scent.  Even amidst the foam, it was stronger now.  Her thoughts were  of palaces, of exquisitely tended gardens overflowing with blossom, elegant figures in silken robes walking slowly, observing the richness that surrounded them.  She imagined herself strolling amongst them, participating freely in their subtly worded conversations, occasionally drawing forth laughter with remarks that were both witty and apposite. 

She could have been Scheherazade, re-telling the vast cache of nested tales that had saved her from death over the course of those one thousand and one nights, blessed with the learning she had acquired from vast but long lost libraries.  For there were none who could tell as she could of the fisherman and the djinn, of the three apples, the City of Brass or of Princess Parizade and the magic tree.

And in each of the magic trees that surrounded her hung golden, gleaming apples, perfectly ripened in the glow of a now descending sun – whose light rays pierced a scattered chaos of cloud forms, filling the firmament with radiance in a thousand exquisite shades of colour.  And in this sylvan idyll, she walked on, dressed now in elaborate robes that might have been painted by Rossetti, Millais or Burne-Jones, in that lush fantasy to which they subscribed of a past that never was.

That fictive past was hers in which to roam freely, its parameters just adjacent to those more commonly shared by the human throng.  If there was decay here, it merely served to feed and nurture rebirth.  If there was despair, it was simply a stage on some journey that led to revelation.  If there was terror, it was but a step from ecstasy.  So she strode, her body upright, her legs firm and sure, on a pathway that passed by pagodas, pantheons and pantiled archways, in a crowd of companions or in the simplicity of solitude.  Onwards.  Tirelessly onwards.

Until at last she knew she needed rest.  And where better to rest than in the still, sun-warmed waters of a tiny lake to which she came, grass edged and partially shaded by leafy beech trees and blossoming banks of rhodedendrum?  So she stripped herself of the silks and the braids which had adorned her body, and lowered herself into the lake.  Its temperature seemed at one with her own.  She swam a few languid strokes, then flipped to lie on her back, water supported.  And were there some traces of foam on its surface?  Was there not a faint sense of recognition about this water, and the lingering traces of a scent that was both familiar and strange?  She closed her eyes, floating, drifting, savouring all that she had perceived. 

When at last she opened them again, she was in her little bathroom, and the only light was the burning nub of a once ochre-red candle.  A few more minutes and she would have been in darkness. 

She rose, grabbing a towel, wrapping it around herself and stepped out of the bath.  She hesitated for a moment before pulling the cord to switch on the light. It would be intrusive, she knew, but it had to be done.  A prelude to everything that ‘had to be done’ when she stepped out of that little space within which the infinite had momentarily opened.  But she was not unprepared.  She felt clear and certain, ready for anything.

Too bad the candle had burnt down so completely.  She would look for that man next time in the market, she was sure. 

But she was not so sure she would find him.

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