A Slow Burn

by Daniel Webre

It started with a single candle. Bland, unscented, nothing but a cylinder of white wax encased in glass. Harmless until lit. The wick protruded, daring the match-tip to ignite it. Then, it burst aflame. Fire feeding on oxygen, a blast of light, a trace of water vapor condensing on glass walls, as wax dribbled down in clumpy rivulets. Nothing but a ruined mess at the end of it all. But Sarah was happy.

She had begun shopping for candles, her sole purpose for trips to the store. At first Clement didn’t notice their appearance around the house. She kept them concealed, secluded in cabinets. Hidden from him. Even then, she realized that this had been her intent. Clement might have told her to stop it. But he didn’t. Not for a while, anyway. His attention was elsewhere, as it had been for some time. This gave Sarah plenty of opportunity to shop for candles.

It became her challenge, in fact, to see how many she could fit in the various obscure pieces of furniture that crowded their living room (her last obsession had been antiquing). Clement scarcely paid attention to these, could not have said that they’d existed, much less name them or imagine looking inside of one of them. As long as he had a clear path to his work table, he didn’t complain. But for Sarah, it was an exercise in close packing. She found that staggering the rows of candles worked best. That way one glass holder could rest inside the curves of two others. At first it hadn’t really mattered how well she used the space, but as her collection mounted, she soon learned the importance of using every available inch of shelving. Once lined up in formation, she could close the door on them, turn her attention to another cupboard until it was time to burn them all down to a nub again. This she did when Clement was out of the house.

Once, though, he returned home earlier than expected, and smoke still hovered over the dining room table when he walked in.

“Pasta Puttanesca,” she said, thinking quickly. “I used sardines this time. New recipe, but it didn’t work out.”

“You lit a candle,” he said, stating the obvious.


She stared at Clement, as though there might have been more to what he had said, this man she’d lived with for the past five years. She wondered briefly if she could still trust him. Then, as though the matter had been settled, she stood up and looked him directly in the eye. “Come here,” she said. “I want to show you something.”

She opened the door to the bedroom where, spread across the hardwood floor, legions of candles stood at attention. She’d emptied out the cabinets, deployed them in lines of advance. All types, all scents, all sizes. She’d lit some that morning, let them burn for a while, then extinguished them. The aromas now blended and clashed, not quite escaping the room. Even with the windows open, the bedroom smelled like chlorine and cordite, a freshly razed pine forest. Clement wasn’t saying anything, and Sarah felt too anxious to turn his way.

Finally, it was a sparrow, of all things, that broke the spell. It flew in, landed on the window sill, startling them both, before flitting off again.

Clement spoke first. “What’s happened here?”

“These are my candles,” she said. “I’ve been collecting them.”

Clement coughed. “Why so many?”

“It’s not so many, really. Think of your strategy games. All your little figurines that you paint.”

“Those are armies.”


They both stood silent, surveying the vast expanse of glass and burnt wax before them.

“So, I guess this is what you wanted to show me?” Clement stepped carefully over a row of candles to get closer to the window. He opened it wider. He stayed near it, taking in the fresh air.

“Why won’t you look at me?” she said.

Clement’s head started shaking side to side. Then he did turn her way, but Sarah had already picked up the matches. She started lighting candles again, one by one, systematically working her way down each row.

“What are you doing?”

“I want to give you the full effect.”

Small fires erupted all around the room, anywhere her hand passed, but they remained confined inside the glass containers.

Clement watched in alarm. “I guess I’m just confused.”

What Sarah wanted to tell him was that she was too, but something about the radiance of the flames prevented her from speaking. She no longer wanted to talk, her words now carried off by shadows dancing around the room. But then she remembered Clement.

“Come sit with me,” she said. Sarah patted the bedspread next to her.

“I’ve got to get back to work. I just came home to pick up something to eat. I have to stay late. You said there was pasta?”

“I said I threw it out.”

“Okay, I’ll just pack something from the fridge.” He coughed again. “You know it’s getting hot in here. Be careful that you don’t burn the house down.”

Sarah let herself imagine this for an instant, but pulled back. “I don’t want the house to burn,” she said. “Just the candles.”

Clement shrugged and sighed. It seemed like he was contemplating whether he might brave the flames to reach her, but ultimately, he walked the other way. “Like I said, I’ll be back late. Maybe you could pick these up before then.”

Sarah nodded, but didn’t answer. Then she watched the contours of Clement’s shadow disappearing.

She wanted to call out to him, tell him to wait, come back. But she knew he wouldn’t do it. She lay back on the bed and remembered how it hadn’t always been this way. She thought of the sparrow again.

The first time they’d met there had also been a sparrow. She had just moved to New Orleans and found work at a coffee shop in the Marigny. As it turned out, the same one Clement frequented. She’d always been a quick study and was already in charge of opening mornings. It made her uneasy at first, since she never knew exactly who would wander in those doors. But on that particular morning, it had been a sparrow, nothing more than a baby, really. It had tested its feathers and found its way into the kitchen, but then seemed uncertain about where to go next. It settled there, mouth open, scaring her half to death when she walked into the empty room and found it fluttering its wings. Then, it was the scared one when she gently lifted it with a dish towel, and thus swaddled, carried it out of the kitchen. That’s when she got her second jolt of the morning. A man was standing at the counter. Not threatening, even attractive in a way, she just hadn’t expected to find him there. Clement didn’t know much about sparrows either, but together they located what they thought might be a safe place in a nearby oleander bush and released the baby bird.

When she checked again after the morning rush, the bird had gone. But Clement came back the next morning, and the next, and the one after that. This, Sarah learned, had been his habit before her, but later he admitted that the tall Americano was no longer the café’s main draw.

For a while, life had been wonderful, and before she really knew what was happening, they had found a house together. This house. Five years ago.

Now there were hobbies, collections. Toy soldiers for him; antiques and candles for her—what did she really want, though? She could hear more sparrows chattering just outside the window, but she knew nothing would come inside with the candles burning.


She must have dozed. The sound of wind chimes tinkling brought her back, and then the wind was gusting, picking up speed. She remembered the candles.

She pulled herself upright in a hurry, noticed that half had either blown or burnt themselves out, but one had simply tipped over, and was rolling gently back and forth, across a depressed region of the floor.

She thought of Clement’s warning, was relieved that the fire had not spread, and suddenly realized she no longer cared about candles. She blew out the rest, her mind on Clement, the life they might still build together.

When the last flame had been extinguished, she understood that she herself was hungry. She walked to the kitchen, paused briefly at Clement’s work table where he prepared his troops, and felt a renewed sense of bewilderment. He was the least war-like man she’d ever met, so it felt completely out of the blue when he started reading up on military history and bringing home these figurines. Armies—she caught herself. It seemed that a group of his coworkers—fellow engineers—was also involved in these model wars, and she supposed Clement was just doing this as one more way to get along, to try and fit in. But where did she fit in anymore? Did she even want to?

Sarah thought about how close they’d been in those early years when she’d first moved from Denver—the Mile High City no longer holding any appeal for her—and she had unwittingly selected a new home for herself ten feet below sea level. The coffee shop was just intended as a change of pace, never a career. Just like living with Clement. At the time, she was making a clean break from a long-term relationship she realized was no longer working. The last thing she’d wanted was a new one. But Clement had taken her by surprise. He’d been kind and supportive and she’d genuinely come to enjoy being with him, until slowly, almost imperceptibly, it felt as though they’d started taking one another for granted. She considered whether it was time to move on again. But no, New Orleans wasn’t exactly the problem, and neither was Clement, necessarily. She still loved them both, flawed as they were, even if she knew their world was sinking.


When Clement came home, it was indeed late, after ten o’clock. And all the candles had been put away long ago, once they’d had a chance to cool off. Sarah wasn’t sure yet what she would do with them, but they mildly depressed her now. So, it was with no small annoyance that she made herself listen when Clement came into the room, sat down on the bed where she was already under the covers, and wanted to speak about candles.

“The candles are away now, Clement. I put them up just like you asked.”

“That’s not what I meant. I guess—I was just thinking about some things tonight at work.”

Sarah was tired, but she propped herself up on one arm. “Like what?” she said, sleepy but attentive.

“I’d like to do some things differently.”

“Oh yeah?”


Sarah was sitting now. “Go on,” she said.

“Well, for one, I was thinking about getting rid of my armies.”

Sarah wasn’t sure she he’d heard him correctly. She asked him to repeat it, so as to avoid saying anything she might regret later.

“I just thought—Well, look—sitting up there in that empty office tonight—All I could think about was how miserable it would be if that was all there was left to my life. And then those armies came to mind—It was just too much.”

Sarah reached over and put her hand on Clement’s thigh. Then his hand found hers. She felt a warmth she’d been missing, a surge of heat spreading through her body.

Clement kept talking. “We could go shopping for candles this weekend. If that’s what you wanted.”

“No. I don’t want to do that,” Sarah said.

“Yeah, I guess the candles are kind of your thing.”

“Not so much. Not anymore.” She grew quiet again. Searched for the right words. “It’s like—How can I express this? It’s like I always feel tied up in tiny knots inside. Maybe I thought the candles could somehow burn them all away. But they can’t.”

“I think I understand,” he said. “Maybe they’re inside me sometimes, too. But I know they’re better when I’m with you.”

Sarah felt his body relax, and then they lay down together on the bed. For a long while they did nothing but hold one another in an embrace so gentle that she was not always certain he was still there. But then she touched him and he reached out to her and she forgot about Evening Primrose and Holiday Spice Cake and even Lavender Meadow—only breathing him in now—his clothes, his skin, his hair—and she remembered they were indeed still together—entwined, yet no longer entangled.

About the Author