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Progressive politics, ideas & culture

November-December 2010

Great Canadian Literary Hunt 2010: Candlepower by Phyllis Rudin

Phyllis Rudin

We’re posting the winners of the 2010 Great Canadian Literary Hunt all this week. Come back daily for amazing new poetry, fiction, and graphic narrative. And stay tuned for the 2011 contest announcement, coming in January…

Who knew that a hobby so bizarre even had a name for itself? But Mandy spelled it all out for her baffled mother early on, back when she was oh, eight or so. Waxidermy is what she called her riff on Madame Tussaud. For starters, Mandy appropriated the cold white stubs from the shabbos candles and yahrzeit candles her mother had illegally blown out before they were fully burned down so that the flames wouldn’t singe the dining room sheers while they slept. Her mother was a modern woman, happy to observe the traditions to the extent that they didn’t impinge on safety or decor, though her laissez-faire approach to religious observance abraded her daughter’s parochial school sensibilities. Little Miss Holier-than-thou stashed the filched candle butts in a shoe box until she accumulated what she deemed a decent hoard, at which point she melted them down to malleability in the crock pot. Once her pinkie advised her that it was cool enough to work with, she turned the waxy mass out onto her mother’s marble pastry board and moulded it into a marzipanish figurine of one of the relatives.

Mandy, in family lore, had no talent for art. It was her brother Bram who had locked up the Chagall genes. But it was starting to look like they’d given her short shrift. Her sculptures were eerily lifelike; masterful representations of the various members of the mishpocheh Tabachnik. On the face of it, they were a dubious bunch to inspire flights of creativity, but muses must come in all flavours, apparently. Mandy seemed to put her miniatures to no particular fetishy use. She didn’t stick thumbtacks in their hearts or lop off an arm here or a foot there. Once they cooled and hardened, she just positioned her downsized kinfolk very precisely on top of her bureau and there they sat.

Mandy’s mother cleaned house every Thursday. Bella couldn’t help but study her daughter’s munchkin output while she flicked the feather duster over the assemblage. Not that the array changed all that often. It took months and months worth of candle stumps to yield a single new specimen. Bella peered through her bifocals at the statuettes. They were placed in a rough semi-circle. At first, she took the configuration as the lead-up to an eventual ring-around-the-rosie arrangement, an innocent and joyful family tableau, or an incipient hora circle, maybe. But over time she was forced to question her initial assessment. Surely she was hallucinating, but didn’t the layout on Mandy’s bureau look more like Stonehenge?

That impression, ludicrous though she knew it to be, refused to shake loose. Soon Bella was obsessing over the relative positions of the wax replicas that populated the top of the chest of drawers where her daughter stored her Cinderella undies and pyjamas, trying to sniff out their subliminal message. Whatever it was, she figured, no way could it be good.

As Mandy added more bite-size family characters over the years, placing them here and there among the old-timers according to her own internal logic, Bella was able to enjoy a brief period of relief. It was all beginning to look less to her like Stonehenge and more like the diamond at Fenway, but no, that wasn’t quite it either. The particular disposition of the effigies in Mandy’s room rang a faint bell somewhere at the back of Bella’s mind, but she just couldn’t manage to dredge up the matching image from the archives. She was forever ruminating over the deployment of the figurines like a scientist puzzling over crop circles until the penny finally dropped.

A nativity scene. That’s what it was. Bella wanted to be wrong, but the evidence, undisputable, was right there before her. What did her Mandele know from a crèche, but the most recently added figure was the baby Jesus all right, and he was wearing Uncle Seymour’s pocked puss. What the hell kind of statement was Mandy trying to make? The girl had been a mystery to her mother since day one; seldom disobedient, seldom ornery, but always opaque. And if this wacko diorama was indeed some sort of message to Bella, why was Mandy taking an eternity to cough it up? Her daughter had shown herself, growing up, to be a patient sort, but this much restraint was downright pathological.

Not one word did Bella say to her daughter about her revelation; no action did she take. That is, of course, until the day Mandy parachuted the donkey into her mise en scène. That fateful Thursday, Bella lugged the vacuum cleaner into her daughter’s room as usual and dumped it in the corner. She always started her cleaning forays into Mandy’s territory with an inspection of the forms on the bureau; only then could she settle down to business. Bella noticed the new inhabitant at once. The arrangement of bonsai Tabachniks was graven on her brain, and any change to the blueprint leapt immediately to her attention. It was an animal this time, Mandy’s first detour into the realm of wildlife. She dipped her head down closer to examine it nose to nose. Once her focus locked in on the most recent arrival, she had to lean against the wall to steady herself. The donkey bore her own face. The heart-shaped mole on Bella’s right cheek combined with the cat’s-eye glasses were unmistakeable. She was staring at her dopplegänger on four hooves. That was it, the last straw.

Bella barreled out to the kitchen to rescue the crème brulée burner from the bottom of the regifting drawer, and brought the hitherto useless gadget back to Mandy’s room. She aimed the business end towards the peewee clan, pulled the trigger and torched the lot, melting years of her daughter’s exacting labour down to a murky puddle. As soon as the deed was done, Bella suffered an episode of some sort. Looking back, she hesitated to call it a stroke — she never actually lost consciousness — but her joints seized up and her brain hung out the “back in five minutes” sign. When she came to, she cracked open her mouth and started to recite Humpty Dumpty to the four walls. The voice that echoed back sounded normal to her own ears. In her crazed state, she halfway expected that she’d bray. She reached behind her back to give her coccyx an exploratory pat-down. Bella palpated carefully in the same circular motion her ob-gyn had taught her, but she detected no tail bud lurking under the skin. The tension got the best of her. She abandoned the roux of congealing wax on the bureau, hoovered the carpet slap-dash, and then set herself up on the couch with a medicinal Chivas.

A few hours later, Mandy came back from school and retired to her room to do her homework as usual. Bella girded herself for the moment when her daughter discovered the ravaged remains of her life’s work, her entire waxy family incinerated in a holocaust unleashed at the hands of her own loving mother. But there was no outcry, nary a peep. Was this what Bella had been trying to provoke all along in destroying the shot glass statues, the colossal blowout that would break down the wall between them? If so, it was a dud. The bedroom was silent. Bella recalled her relationship with her own mother, a shrieking battleground. She didn’t communicate with her in smoke signals or charades or papier mâché. They duked it out at the highest decibel level in the time-honoured tradition of mothers and daughters. How had an incrementalist like Mandy ever sprung from Bella’s slash and burn loins?

The counter-reaction, though not verbal, didn’t tarry. Mandy hauled the crock pot out of the cupboard that same night and set to work melting the slab of wax. This time, though, she fashioned one solitary figure, a grand statement, bolder than all the rest. No more pissing about with pygmies. The result seemed somehow bigger than the sum of its parts. Maybe Mandy had thrown her backlog of virgin candle stubs into the mix, or could be she’d cleaned out her ears to add to the critical mass. In any event, this wax creation loomed over her bureau. It was, of all things, an African fertility goddess. So perfect was it in every detail that it might have been nicked from a case at the Smithsonian. The idol’s hair was intricately braided and draped, its charged breasts diddled its kneecaps, and its navel pooched out at a perky angle from a distended belly. Only her mother’s myopic face etched onto the sculpture killed the illusion. Bella nuked it on the spot, but there was no stopping Mandy now. She slapped her mother’s kisser onto every last one of her subsequent waxworks. One day Bella was rejigged as a giant Buddha, and the next a garden troll. Mandy scrimshawed her mug onto Che Guevara and Donald Duck and then shoehorned her into Mount Rushmore between Roosevelt and Lincoln. She whipped out her masterworks at dizzying speed, the Edward Scissorhands of wax, but each new opus her mother melted flat. Twice already Bella had had to replace her butane cartridge. She was considering a rare midweek sortie to Costco to buy some in bulk.

Themes began to emerge in Mandy’s oeuvre. Well into her New York period, she moulded her mother into King Kong, one arm slung buddy-buddy over the Empire State Building, and next into an owlish Statue of Liberty. Against all her instincts, Bella fell for this last waxy iteration. When she pointed her trusty burner at her clone to zap it like all the others, her index finger went on strike. Bella holstered her weapon and approached the carving, scrutinizing it from all angles. Then she closed her eyes and massaged her forehead as if performing some interior triangulation. The tumblers of her mind meshed with a satisfying click of resolution. Bella grabbed hold of the statue by the throat. She rocked it back and forth until it popped its moorings, and toted it into the dining room. There she centred it on the buffet in front of the bay window, elbowing aside the Chanukah menorah that was already kitted out with its two start-up candles for the first night of the holiday. She yanked the candles out and jammed the yellow one into Lady Liberty’s torch and the pink one into her head, just behind the crown. Bella stood back and eyeballed her ad hoc menorah. It wasn’t half bad.

For each of the following nights of Chanukah, Bella drilled yet another spiral candle into the statue’s cranium. As was her custom, she snuffed them out prophylactically at half-mast. Even so, enough heat was generated by the amputee candles that it couldn’t help but affect the integrity of the menorah proper. Its features began to morph. Ms. Liberty’s mouth and nose melded into each other harelipwise, her chin lost its resolve, and her toga pleats needed a good pressing. As the Chanukah candles dripped down the contours of the menorah, they clotted along the way, padding the Statue of Liberty’s hips in multicoloured waxen strands until she looked like a Chianti bottle centerpiece in a boho pizzeria. On the eighth and last night, Bella decided, God alone knows why, to let the candles burn all the way down, unchecked. She parked herself at the dining room table after the family retired to keep a firefighter’s eye on the blaze, ready to whip out the extinguisher and let her rip if need be, but she drifted off while the flames were still shimmying full force above the statue’s chignon.

The morning found Bella with her head cradled in her arms. She’d slept the sleep of the dead, a rare reflux-free snoozerama, chloroformed by the latke fumes holed up in the fibres of the blue and white holiday tablecloth. The wooden dreidels lodged upended under her bosom were just starting to prick her awake when she made out the approach of slippered footsteps. Bella opened her crusted eyes a slit to spy on Mandy from behind. Her daughter was contemplating the moonscape of residual wax that coated the surface of the buffet like a patch of psoriasis, all that remained of her glorious handiwork. Mandy nodded her head. She scraped up the wax, carried it over to the kitchen garbage pail, tossed it in among the coffee grounds and the orange peels, and let the lid fall on lesson number one.

Phyllis Rudin lives in Montreal. Her short story The Inside Scoop is forthcoming in The Massachusetts Review. Her novel manuscript, The CEO of Oz, which follows a group of immigrant women working the line in a ramshackle Montreal lingerie factory, placed second in the 2010 Yeovil Literary Competition.
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