Kira set the cardboard box on the floor. Tape had not stuck well — the air had been too humid — so she had tied a twine around the box. Now the knot had tightened to an impossible-to-break lock. She looked around the room for scissors or a knife. Workmen had left a sharp tool on the window sill. With a strong pull, she cut the twine and opened the flaps.
The smell of mold and dustiness wafted from the box. The wooden carvings on the top were covered in a white film, the salad tongs slightly bowed. The porcelain cups were wrapped in a thin pink tissue paper. Pieces of pink fluttered as she picked up the teacup and the cutting board was peppered with. Kira laid the items on the floor; she would figure out how to clean them later. Or throw them out. They were of as little value to her as the place she had left behind.
Kira pulled out cups and dishes, unwrapping each one before digging deeper. At the bottom she found two books — a history of Burma and a volume of poetry by Tsvetaeva. They too were coated with the sticky, damp film. Something curved, shaped like a banana or a shepherd’s horn was nestled between the two books. It was also covered in pink. Unlike the other items in the box, she didn’t remember this item. Maybe the packers had placed it in the box by mistake.
The tissue paper stuck to it more closely than to the other items. She peeled it off, fleck by fleck, carefully because she didn’t know what was behind the paper. The tissue stuck because of the object’s material — wax. The tip of the item crumbled in her hands — the burnt end of a candle. The tropic warmth of the customs warehouse where her box had sat waiting for her onward instructions had bent the candle into a graceful curve.
Graceful, but useless for shedding light. She couldn’t straighten it without breaking it. Perhaps she could melt it a bit. Hold it over the stove or just light a match near the middle of the bend. She abandoned the other objects — things she had collected. Souvenirs of exotic adventures to up country lands, ferry rides across rivers teeming with tiny boats and rafts, trudging climbs to hidden pagodas. They sat in the middle of the floor surround by the Pepto Bismal pink tissues, while she rummaged around the apartment for a match or a lighter to fix the half-used, washed-out yellow candle.
The range top was old-fashioned, no automatic pilot, a remnant of the last years of Soviet rule. The previous occupants had left a box of matches, those long wooden ones that were hard to find in the west anymore. Kira lit the match and held the candle over the sink as she brought the warmth to its curve. She could feel the wax softening. With tiny moves she bent it, using a light touch to avoid leaving her fingerprints in the wax.
She held the candle in front of her and examined it. Straight. Or straight enough to light. Kira went back to her box and looked through her porcelain for a candle stick holder. Nothing. She uncovered a small, shallow lacquer bowl. The tissue stuck as firmly to it as it had to the candle. The shape was appropriate, but she feared the bowl would not be able to endure the candle’s heat even if she were able to remove the flecks of paper. She went back to the porcelain. A saucer would suffice.
Kira lit a match, first applying the flame to the bottom edge of the candle so it would adhere to the saucer and stand upright. Then she lit the wick and set the candle on the windowsill.
The apartment was already dark — the sun low in the sky although it was only mid afternoon. Outside the trees were black against the deepening blue sky. A small draft flickered the flame, but it stayed lit. Kira studied the flame as the view beyond the window darkened to pitch black.
The flame grew larger, wider, filling up the whole windowpane. Kira moved to put it out before it caught the drapes. But the flame stopped spreading and stayed framed by the top of the window, the sill and the drapes. The tongues swayed like Burmese dancers. A wide river with low banks flowed through the center of the window. A golden dome glistened above it. Tinny music tinkled behind her. The chant of the monks begging for breakfast alms resounded in the background. The metallic clang of a mallet on a bell hanging outside a pagoda echoed in the northern European room.
The sweetness, almost cloying, of temple flowers perfumed the space and Kira heard the melodious rhythm of little boys in the street hawking wreaths of blossoms.
About Connie Phlipot
Connie is a retired U.S. diplomat, who has recently completed a novel based on her grandparents emigration from what is now Belarus. She is now working on a novel or linked short stories focused on her fascination with Central and Eastern Europe.