by Holly Stacey
A sea bird dived into the glittering sea and popped its head up, a small fish in its beak. The sun was glaring, but the air was still crisp. The storyteller wrapped a brown woolen blanket tight around his shoulders and looked at the small crowd around him.
“Nice day, eh?” he said, as the last of the tourists seated themselves around him. “Fresh, crisp, sunny. It was a day like this when Elsa would love to go walking up the mountain.”
A small child chirruped that there were no mountains around here, and the storyteller sniffed.
“Know everything then, do you? I suppose you’ll be telling the stories next, I shouldn’t wonder.” He glanced up at the sun. “As I was saying…”
Elsa lived in a small town at the base of a large mountain with her very old grandfather who was a candle maker. Elsa’s family had always made candles, for as long as they could account for. It was all they’d ever done and all they ever wanted to keep on doing. However, Elsa’s parents were lost in a terrible snow storm one year when Elsa was a tiny baby – so aside from Elsa, who was too young to be in business on her own, it was just her grandfather.
Elsa loved her grandfather, and she loved helping him make candles. She helped melt the wax over the fire, using both hands to hold the filled vat. It was very heavy, and she needed a thick cloth to keep her hands from burning on the hot iron handles. Then, as the wax went molten, she’d carefully carry it over to the molds where her grandfather was waiting. He’d take the pot in one hand as if it weighed nothing and then pour it perfectly into the molds. When the wax was cool, her grandfather would unlock the molds, opening them like a book so the candles could be removed and hung up by their wicks in the window of their shop.
Sometimes, for special occasions like the winter festival, Elsa helped her grandfather grind down paint pigments to add to the wax. Colored candles were difficult to make, and sometimes it made the wax stick to the mold, but when done right, they were the most beautiful and always sold quickly.
It was on a bright spring day when Elsa’s grandfather asked her to go collect some blue and yellow pigments from the shop down the road. “I want to create a candle that will swirl from blue to green to yellow for the Spring Festival,” he said. He had a twinkle in his eye and an excitement to him that Elsa hadn’t seen in a while. She smiled and told him she’d be quick.
Warm sun brightened the sky, but there was still an icy chill from the mountain. The shop with the pigments was closed and there was a little sign in the window that read: CLOSED DUE TO ILLNESS. Elsa sighed. She was going to have to find something else for the candles. Her eyes instinctively looked to the mountains, where she so often loved to explore. Surely there would be something special to find, if she knew what to look for.
But when Elsa got home, her grandfather was asleep in bed with a fever. She could not wake him, and his skin was pallid and dripping with sweat. She wept. How would they survive if he was ill? Without her grandfather she could not make candles, and without candles there would be no money to buy food.
She dabbed his hot forehead with cool water and went about trying to get the shop in order without him. Then she looked around at all the empty candle molds. There was so much work – but she wasn’t strong enough. Frustrated, she went outside to clear her mind.
She walked past all the shop windows – they all had a good amount of things to sell. She bundled her shawl around her tighter and turned up the path that led off the cobbled street and to the mountain pass. Wild winds and fresh flowers always helped her think better. She couldn’t pour the molds without spilling all the wax and ruining the candles, and she couldn’t ask anyone in the town for help or her grandfather would be found out. Her pace quickened as her mind turned.
The gravel -covered path suddenly had much bigger stones littered across it, and she was soon using her hands to clamber over them. There were more wild weeds, seed heads, and brightly-colored flowers that she’d only seen dried in one shop. “I bet those would look good pressed into the wax,” she voiced. Then she sighed. “But I cannot pour the molds.” It was a relief to say it aloud. She looked around to make sure she was alone, but it was just her, the mountain, the flowers, and wind. Leaning against a large rock shaped like a door, she stretched out her legs and looked up at the clear blue sky. “I cannot pour the molds, grandfather will not wake, and we will starve without help. Yet I cannot ask for it. What am I to do?” she asked a passing cloud.
Indeed, what could she do? Her stomach rumbled, but she didn’t feel like eating. She pulled out the small potato and leek pie she’d packed away in her purse for lunch and put it on a rock next to her. She couldn’t say why, but it seemed like the right thing to do. She’d shared her troubles with the mountain, and she felt like she needed to return something to it. On her way back down the path, she picked some of the red flowers to press into the molds, just in case she grew enough muscle in the night to lift the wax pot on her own.
At home her grandfather slept soundly still, a small smile upon his lips, oblivious to the troubles around him. Elsa covered him with the quilt and kissed his forehead before preparing herself dinner. Without thinking, she also prepared the melting pot for the wax, setting the wax inside and the pot by the fire. She finished her meal and went straight to bed, sleeping without any dreams.
In the morning, Elsa ran to her grandfather’s bed. He was exactly as she’d left him – in a deep sleep with a restful expression. She’d half convinced herself seconds earlier he’d be awake and as right as rain. Worry pressed down on her heart, and with heavy feet she made her way into the kitchen to prepare some breakfast. But something else caught her eye.