The Storyteller: The Candle Factory

“I’m allergic to bees,” my 9-year-old cousin Bruce yelled as we sat in the backseat of my father’s 1967 white Mustang.

We’d spent the last few minutes painstakingly cranking the back windows open, and now the loud wind ricocheted off the car’s black-leather interior, making my cousin’s brown hair whip wildly, covering his face so that he looked like a miniature Chewbacca.

“They’re behind glass,” I yelled over the wind. “You’ll be fine.”

Bruce looked at me with concern. When I’d stayed at his house the previous summer we’d had many adventures, some of which didn’t go as planned. His look suggested he might have doubts regarding my reassurances. He turned away and looked out the window. From behind his hair looked like prairie grass in a hurricane.

We were driving north from St. Helena on Highway 29. The day was hot and the hills were golden, the green grass of spring long gone. I breathed deeply. The open windows allowed in the strong smell of eucalyptus.

I leaned up on the front passenger seat where my mother was sitting, my body unencumbered by the constraints of a seatbelt.

“Are we almost to the candle factory?” I yelled into my mom’s ear.

She winced. “Keep your voice down to a low roar,” she said.

“Just up ahead,” my dad said.

Bruce joined me, his small head now directly behind my father’s, both of our unprotected bodies just one quick tap on the brakes away from becoming projectiles.

“That doesn’t look like a castle,” Bruce yelled.

“Did Tim tell you that?” my dad asked.

Bruce nodded.

“Tim has a way of exaggerating things,” my mother explained.

I gave Bruce a toothy grin.

“The building is actually the old Freemark Abbey,” my dad said. “The Hurd Beeswax Candle Co. has been making candles for a long time -- first operating out of an old goat farm off the Silverado Trail and then in 1965 they moved to this location.”

We pulled into the parking lot. Perhaps it wasn’t technically a castle, but to me the large stone structure with its heavy wooden doors looked close enough, and if it wasn’t exactly a castle, it could at least pass as a dungeon.

As soon as the car stopped, I jumped out and ran up the steps. My cousin followed. Once at the doors I paused a second for effect and then pushed them open. As they parted, a damp darkness poured over us, carrying with it an intense smell of melted wax and dried flowers. We stood in awe over the spectacle inside.

Two older women at the counter eyed us suspiciously.

“No sudden moves,” I whispered to Bruce, trying not to move my lips. “These ladies see everything.”

Bruce’s eyes remained fixed on the scene, but he nodded his head hypnotically. “It’s better than a castle,” he mumbled.

“This,” I said. “this is nothing. Wait till you see the bees.”

We walked slowly down a ramp, deeper and deeper into the darkness, the women’s suspicious stares not leaving us until our parents entered the shop.

Inside, thick wooden tables held colorful spires and stacks of candles in every shape imaginable, making the scene appear as if a gang of magicians from King Arthur's court and a commune of hippies had merged during some kind of candle-making binge spurred on by hallucinogenic drugs that had started out fine but had soon turned dark.

“Wow!” my cousin kept repeating.

There were rainbow-colored candles that had twisted fins up their sides, making them look glass-like. Short, squat candles housed red and gold grape leaves just under a transparent paper-thin skin of wax. Piles of telescoping candles filled enormous wine barrels, and long, delicate- pencil-thin candles hung from their uncut wicks along the wall.

Ahead of us I could see the Holy Grail -- a cupboard built right into the side of the stone building containing an active beehive housed in glass. I loved the feeling of secretly watching the bees work inside their hives.

In my distraction, Bruce had wandered away and was standing under a large candle whose semi-liquid wax was streaming down its sides.

I froze. Sensing my hesitation, the old ladies stopped speaking and looked toward me and then toward Bruce.

“Step away from the candle,” I whispered, but Bruce couldn’t hear me. He was under the wax’s spell, and his hand began to lift dreamlike from his side into the air.

My parents had noticed the scene, too, drawn perhaps by the unfamiliar silence, and I could see their lips beginning to move, repeatedly mouthing the words, “Don’t touch anything.”

But Bruce’s arm continued to raise skyward.

The old women sprang into action, each moving surprisingly fast, one in our direction, the other toward my parents. I knew it was now or never and that there was only one option at my disposal. I took a deep breath and -- what happened next is another story.

--

Originally published in the St. Helena Star, 2016