author’s note: the Tallow Candle a fairy tale with great meaning to me, originally recorded by Hans Christian Andersen. It was his earliest work, but it was only discovered as recently as 2012. The first time I ever read it, it spoke to me on a very deep level that is why I wanted to write it from how it so deeply spoke to me. Thanks hans, you’re a swan.[link to www.hcandersen-homepage.dk]
I rewrote the original into my own version of The Tallow Candle. It could probably use a lot of polishing, but I felt I still wanted to share this story here.
(I rewrote the rewrite in this process pretty much totally, so the first version still exists here if you want to see it)
This story is about a Tallow Candle that is born into the world the way we are all born into the world: with endless possibilities before us. His mother is a sheep as white as snow and his father is a melting pot with a bright passionate heart, and they both pass down their brilliances to their son. Everybody likes the Tallow Candle. The denizens of the living room beam at the young candle hopping by, saying to each other:
“there goes that tallow candle. He’s a good little lad, a kind fellow – and strapping too, isn’t he?”
Everybody agrees that the Tallow Candle can have any future he chooses, and that he will enjoy all the pleasures offered by the years of his development. The Tallow Candle believes in his special destiny too. Would his family and their friends lie? (when you are a child you still think adults know things)
His elders agreed that the Tallow Candle was bright and good, but they didn’t consider that perhaps the Tallow Candle was a bit too good for his own good! The Tallow Candle trusted too much when it went out into the world, and all of the kind words offered to him assured him it was safe to wear such a pristine heart on his wax. But his white wax was where that pure heart could be touched and pressed and grabbed. The Tallow Candle didn’t consider that.
So it came to pass that the Candle left his living room one fateful day, for he could no longer contain his eagerness to meet the world and fulfill his special fate. He observed without pride he must indeed be very beautiful, because wherever he stayed people asked him,
“ oh dear Tallow Candle, we do love to see you glow so bright and bold. Would you provide us light while we sleep? because nothing evil could ever happen with such a pure and perfect candle burning and keeping watch over us!”
The Candle agreed eagerly, for surely this is the destiny for which I was born!
Unfortunately, a reputation for being generous and helpful can become a dangerous thing when you out alone in the world. It was not too long until the opportunists had caught wind of an exceptional candle that would light all evening’s darkness, asking for nothing in return.
Over time, nights got longer and longer for the candle. the Tallow Candle spent many evenings watching romantic evenings from the corner of the room. “Is this what love is?” he would muse quitely to himself, in the shadow of two stranger’s embrace. By now he had seen dozens of slowly parting kisses and the way the men and woman would melt into the eyes of the other. And then he would feel the slow drip of camdle wax as it slid down his body’s shaft, and suddenly he was very cold even though a flame danced on his brow.
The next day passed and the Tallow Candle decided he wanted to spent it alone, for he had begun to wonder if this was his destiny after all. But his petitioners had come to rely on his strong and graceful luminscence, and they pleaded,
“Noble Tallow Candle! Tonight we need you more than ever before, for there is a new moon and we are scared to be in the dark without any light at all. You are the brightest most beautiful candle we have ever seen. there are sinister things in the darkness and we are afraid”
Burning with his fathers mercurial passion, Tallow Candle’s flame danced from left to right, a slowly wagging tail on the tip of his head. Perhaps this was his destiny! His courage would make him a brave warrior, and his chivalry would protect the love in which he could not partake.
But as time passed on, the Tallow Candle found he was no longer being consulted. It had gotten to the point where the candle was picked up and dropped off like any old object, and the Candle’s steady voice was becoming quieter and quieter, until eventually he came to accept that he may as well not speak, for nobody was listening anymore.
He was passed carelessly from the table into the garage where a rock band used him for atmosphere and then left him among the dust of incense holders and boxes for weeks.
He was commissioned for the front porch during a family reunion where the bright golden dish holding him aloft doubled as an ashtray for giddy tipsy aunts who flung their arms out in wild gestures that threatened to knock him sideways (luckily, this never succeeded).
And, of course, they flung him in a canvas bag and towed him along for weekend camping trips, because the woods at night were the most frightening of all and bears would not go near such a bright light as the Tallow Candle’s. The nights in the wilderness were caked in dirt and the Tallow Candle winced at the steady invasion of hypnotized bugs as they marched into his bright flame and became ashes.
Nobody put him in a special candle holder before they used his flame, but instead just grabbed his base even when their hands were thick with dirt.
“I don’t want to be dirty!” The Tallow Candle cried out one day in protest. The hand approaching him paused and a man blinked at the Candle from behind tilted spectacles.
“I am very sorry,” he said briskly, “I am so very hurried today, but the next time I will carry you from your golden disc. I am sure this one time will not dirty you, Tallow, old chap.” He grabbed the waxy body of the Tallow Candle briskly, not waiting for a reply.
“I am sure that he means it this time,” murmured the candle quietly to himself. And as the days passed they began to blur into ferries of hands carrying the Candle from place to place, room to room, and it became hard to remember whom he was shining for in those dimly lit rooms, as he could not easily discern their faces anymore.
“Is this truly my destiny? I thought that I was supposed to shine like the sun, but it seems I get dimmer by the day. And I am not sure I really like my destiny, after all.”
The Candle was above the fire place just then, and it hopped past a mirror mounted on the wall and perceived itself for the first time in a long while. The Tallow Candle saw that it was no longer a milky snowy white, nor did it shimmer in the glint of the light any longer. It was so dark and muddled with dirt and ash and even ink that the Tallow Candle was not even certain it recognized itself anymore.
And it was not long before the Candle found himself with more time alone. He noticed old friends pass him by, but when they saw his dark and muddy wax, they averted their eyes awkwardly and quickened their pace. It was not much longer until the Candle found it no was no longer picked up at all, or even noticed.
He supposed nobody wanted a dark dirty candle keeping them company throughout the night. Besides for being gross and dirty now, the Candle began to appear shadowy and ominous to others, mistrustful and resembling a crow. And perhaps, they reason, it was because there was really something fearful about the Candle after all.
Whispers began to circulate that the Tallow Candle would overhear in snippets – that he was darkened and ugly now because he’d been brought to the cemetery and lit in a pentagram for a black mass. That he had become so dirtied and muddled because he stood over in strange corners of the house all alone, muttering to his flame and whispering to shadow people.
None of it was true, of course. The Candle did little much but reminisce about how it used to beam and glow and how it used to be loved. Had they only loved him because his flame was so beautiful to look upon, because his pristine wax shined in it’s light and they loved so much to stare at him? He began to doubt that anybody had ever really loved him at all.
After exhausting all the ponderances he could think of on the subject of love, the Tallow Candle began to entertain the notion that perhaps he really was a monstrous thing, and maybe he deserved to be marred and reviled. Maybe he had heard so many stories about his dark deeds that they begun to seem real, in some shadowy nightmare, or maybe the nightmare had been real all along and the light had been the dream.
“Perhaps it really is better to be feared than scorned. For at least, if I am feared, I am being seen as something,” thought the Candle one day. But then he’d look at the sunshine and the days of his youth would spring into his mind unbidden.
“How bright you are, Tallow Candle!” They would say.
“One day, you will shine so bright, you will become a sun!”
“It must be my fault that I have been used. I allowed myself to believe them when they told me that my destiny was to shine. Yes, it is my fault, for believing in that terrible destiny. It is best not to shine for anyone, and then they will not come and use you up until you are dirty and melted and old.”
Retracing his steps, the candle became caught in a circle each day, walking the same path with the same voices jeering the mockery of old hope. He walked this path about the garden, a stone laid circuit bordered by grass and fields of lilac and daffodils of every color. But when he saw how colorful the flowers were, it made him think of his own murky shades, and he had to look away. And when he saw people smiling at each other he wished that they felt as cold and alone as he did. For all he did was shine for them so they could smile and love each other, but none of them wanted to love the Tallow Candle.
So he stopped going outside, and his vision grew dimmer as his thoughts grew as dark as his waxy skin. And the darker his thoughts became, the less he could see, and the less he could see, the darker his thoughts became, until eventually one day the Tallow Candle found it could not see or think of anything except for the darkness. When that happened, the Tallow Candle seemed to slowly stop, like a locomotive as it runs out of steam, and then he just seemed to slip easily off his golden disc, falling facefirst and rolling slightly from side to side like a log with a blank expression.
“I don’t suppose anyone will bother me now. I may get knocked off the table and stepped on; or maybe somebody will come along and throw me away. It is only a matter of time.”
The Tallow Candle had just finished solemnly imagining this inevitability when he heard the approach of something, and even with his face towards the ground he vaguely perceived a box-like shape close by, making annoying sounds…
“Hey there!” said the chipper box. Then, “Hi!” And, “Hello there?”
Perhaps it will go away soon.
“You seem to be stuck on the floor.”
I am not stuck on the floor, stupid box. I like the floor. I am sure it will leave soon.
After several minutes the Tallow Candle wondered if the coast was clear. But it would have to check, which meant rolling over from its stomach. He did not want to, but he could not be left to his misery if he was distracted by wondering about the box, so he rolled over and there the box was, right in front of him, seeming rather looming and huge from his perspective on the ground. It was not the least bit perturbed by being blatantly ignored, so it was safe to assume it wasn’t getting the hint.
“My name is Tinderbox. Are you pretending to be a log? I hear that logs are quite sagacious. Perhaps I will pretend to be a log, too.”
“Tinderbox, I ignored you because I want you to go away. The exact opposite of sitting next to me and pretending to be a log, actually.”
“Well I want to pretend to be a log right here, and this is not your fireplace, so I suppose you will have to just get up and go somewhere else if you want to get away from me.” The tinderbox stared patiently into the distance, as if contemplating the many lessons of yew. As the Tallow Candle simply did not have the motivation or the energy to move, it resigned itself to the idea of the Tinderbox and the pair sat in silence for some time, which made the Tallow Candle feel exceedingly awkward, although the Tinderbox felt nothing of the sort.
Eventually the Tallow candle felt so awkward it blurted out, “Why would you want to be around me? I am the dark ugly candle and pagans use me to cast hexes as they dance around the moon and spill goat blood. I’m the dark gross candle, the creepy guy who talks to shadow people when the rest of you are sleeping because I lost my mind along with my light. I am a monster, Tinderbox, so maybe I will curse you right now, and you will become as foul and corrupt as I.”
“I’d like to see you try to curse me, Tallow Candle. But I really don’t think you know how.”
The Tinderbox waits a little while for a reply, and then continues talking.
“Do you want to know why I think that Tallow Candle?”
The Tinderbox waits another little while for a reply, and then says,
“Because none of that stuff is true. Duh. You were always a nice candle. You know, I heard from Ms Cup that you drank goat blood and I thought she was making a joke so I blurted out laughing at her. Oh, I laughed loudly too. You wanna know what she did?”
“Uh, yeah; okay. Sorta.”
“She blew all the tea in her nozzle straight into my face, went, ‘humph!’ with her nose in the air, and then she tiptoed away like a ballerina. I think she thought if she stood on her tiptoes, I would get the message that she is highly dignified and I am not.”
He couldn’t help it, and Tallow Candle let out the snort of a laugh despite himself. “I can just see her doing that,” and paused for a second, “I guess that was pretty gutsy of you. But you’re basically a stranger to me, so I don’t really get it.”
“Yeah, I mean we’ve never talked. To be honest you always sort of intimidated me. You were like a shining star and everybody wanted your attention. Me? I’m just a box with matches in it. But you know what? I could tell you needed a friend. Somebody to slap you and tell you that you don’t have to do everything for everybody else all the time. It’s okay to tell them them no and if that doesn’t work, to tell the fuckers off, tell them all just to fuck off for once.”
“Yeah. Fuck off. Stop grabbing me, I’m shiny and I want to stay shiny. Ask me before you make me stay the night, or fuck off! And stay fucked off! You know?”
“Hah! Yeah. It’s too bad we never talked back then. Maybe things wouldn’t have turned out like this for me.”
“What’s with it with you? All that blackness on the surface is just a shell you use to hide behind. People kept making you dirty because on some level, I think they wanted to bring you down to their level, so you didn’t seem so special all the time. And you? You just wanted to help all the time, you couldn’t help being as pure as the radiance all those grubby hands kept yanking you around for. You wanted to share your light, but you made a mistake, Tallow.”
“And what was that? Tinderbox?”
“Thinking everyone deserved your light.”
“Yeah. Some people don’t. I think you shined for everyone because you wanted them to love you, but it would have worked out a lot better if you shined for the people you loved, because you knew they deserved to see your light, just like you deserved to have their love.”
“I don’t think you need to practice being a sagacious log, Tinderbox. You are already rather sagacious. I’m enjoying this conversation, but I hate to break it to you: I don’t shine anymore.”
“Not ever. I’m all dark now. Just use your eyes.”
“I see that your wax is completely covered in a layer of pitch black bullshit. And underneath that there is a new sun waiting to rise and make you brighter then you’ve ever known you could be.”
“I hate people like you, Tinderbox. No offense, but I heard that my whole life. ‘Shine Tallow, you’re special, you’re great’! They should have prepared me to be a dog so I could eat all the other dogs before they ate me.”
“Eh. You’re just being a curmudgeon. You don’t have any better plans than to sit here until some broom comes by and sweeps you into the dustpan, right? So you may as well just give my idea a chance.”
“Okay. I’m going to light your head on fire.”
“Tried that already.”
“It’s going to be different this time.”
“No, it’s not. Why?”
“Because we’re going to do it together. I’m the candle, you’re the flame. It’s okay if you don’t believe me, but just for a minute, pretend that you believe me.”
“Believe in the me that believes in you.”
The Tallow Candle scoffs. The Tinderbox says, “I’m serious. Drop the cynic act. It’s not fooling me. I know that you’re only acting like a cynic because you’re afraid of feeling even more foolish than you already do. So just stop trying to act smart or trying to act cool because I know that all you’ve ever wanted to do was shine and by now you can probably tell all I’ve ever wanted in life is to teach somebody how. So just shut up and trust me already, because I know you already do.”
Still on the floor, the Tallow candle slowly circled onto his back where from the ceiling, a huge crystal chandelier hung like a royal pendulum from the ceiling, dangling in midair. He wondered…what would it look like if it was glowing with light? He said, “It’s worth a shot.” And like an old man he slowly rose back up so he was standing again, and brushed himself off by hopping in circles and stomping really hard so some dust would fly off.
“Are you gonna light the ma-” he’d been turning around as he was asking and when he saw that the match was already lit, and the tinderbox had opened itself and was holding the lit match at an angle in the tiny crack of the slot where it opened and closed, well he stopped for a minute because he’d never seen fire like that. It was sizzling and burning and it was so white it was almost green and it seemed to crackle. “That’s kind of amazing. Has anyone ever seen this?”
The Tinderbox tried hard not to look smug, but it still looked like it was trying hard not to look smug. “I have never lit a match before. I don’t light anyones matches unless I want to. This is the only time I have ever wanted to.”
The Tallow candle bent over until he was just balancing on the very edge of his wax-circle foot. He felt a little silly, like a knight being christened for a queen, as the Tinderbox leaned forward gently and lit his wick.
And then the light ignited. All the little teacups, the bells, the doorknobs and the pens, seemed to wake up and all of them were transfixed by the light because it seemed to become so large it filled the room like a silver ball. And it all seemed to sprout and grow like a ballon from the Tallow Candle’s wick, but instead of the fire burning him into a puddle of wax, it just sat comfortably upon its head, slowly cascading from a ball until it seemed to float up to every corner of the room that wasn’t occupied until there was nothing but this light that should have blinded everything. Somehow, though, they could still see the chandelier as it erupted in rainbow prisms from every direction. The rainbows came in all shapes and sizes because the crystal inside the chandelier was just as complex and radiant as the tinderbox and the Tallow Candle, but even more so because it had spent thousands of years growing out of the earth and plenty of time to refine the complexity of all of its facets.
So the result drew everyone from every room in the estate to come running in wonder, confusion, excitement, maybe even at first a bit of terror (which soon gave way to wonder of course) as the rainbow prisms danced upon the walls, and the tables, and the chairs, and the faces of the people, and the spirits of the tables, and the liquor in the wine that the late master was currently pouring for himself although nobody could see it in the blinding display of illumination. Somehow it lasted for as long as it needed to, but not half as long as it seemed to. As soon as everybody had seen it and passed from confusion to apprehension to disbelief to acceptance and then finally back to appreciation, the light began to fade with a sort of shimmer that seemed only half real, so that you had seen it in the corner of your eye but when you changed your focus it was gone. And it faded out like that, like dust that sparkled silver and trickled out so slowly into nothing. And then even when it was gone out of the corner of your eye you might still almost catch the shimmer.
“What in the name of the Good Lord was that?” asked the man with a mustache, puffing on his cigar.
The master of the estate gave his friend a good pat on the shoulder. “I don’t think we’re going to figure it out, mate. A goddamn miracle or we’ve all gone insane. Perhaps we shouldn’t think too hard about it, eh? Not like we’re ever going to forget.” and amongst chatter and murmurs and whispers and mulling the crowd began to disperse.
Perhaps you want to know what happened to the performance’s stars. Well, they slipped away at just the right time, the tinderbox’s match discarded, the Tallow Candle’s flame still a crackling green-yellow. By the time anybody was looking for the source of the amazing illumination, they were long gone, and the Tinderbox showed the Tallow Candle a secret grotto where the river meets the forest and the forest borders a cliff of rock. That’s where they went.
Gradually the sullied wax melted under the Tallow Candle’s flame as it spent its hours that night in deep discussion with the tinderbox. They talked about how the moon’s face was always changing from white to black, and how dizzying that must be to always be going back and forth between all those different colors and shapes. Later, the Tallow Candle explained to the incredulous tinderbox how his mother was a sheep and his father was a melting pot and no, he wasn’t sure how that one did pan out, by the end of it neither could stop laughing uncontrollably. And then the night started to give way and they talked more seriously about what it was like to start a fire the way the Timberbox did or have one burning on your head like the Tallow Candle, and how this was the difference between agency and passivity, changing or becoming.
“What am I doing right now – changing or becoming?” wondered the tallow candle aloud with a feeling of sudden urgency.
“You are healing,” replied the tinder box, with a sagacious nod. Then it smiled cheekily, because seriousness was not in the tinderbox’s nature.
By the time the sun came up that morning, nothing but the pearly gleam of the Tallow Candle’s white sheathe remained.
“Tallow, you do shine, but now you seem to also glow. It’s rather neat.”
“I almost want to cover myself in dirt again. How am I ever going to go back and know who I can trust to like me because I’m Tallow Candle, and not some shining glowing circus show attraction?”
The Tinderbox scooted slowly over to a spot near the river where thick mud slushed with liquid. “Cover yourself in dirt again. I have plenty more matches”
They both laughed their asses off at the joke.
“Let’s spend a few days sitting by the river and looking at the stars. And then I’m going to get all muddy and we can go back to the house together, if you want.”
“I thought being dark and ugly was exactly what you didn’t want, Tallow Candle.”
“I didn’t know what I wanted until now, sagacious log. And I don’t think the people in there” Tallow Candle leaned in the direction of the estate “really know what they want either.”
The tinderbox looked smug again. And then, trying to hide it, succeeded in looking like it was failing to hide feeling smug. “Yeah. Let’s do the dirt thing. Soon. I want to watch you glow for a little while longer. It’s probably more fun to watch someone glow than to glow, huh?”
“Nah. Glowing is pretty fucking great”.
And they lived happily ever after. Probably. Who know?