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Chthonic Candles

Chthonic Candles

Estimated reading time — 7 minutes


Burn one a day till Halloween.
Discover what it truly means.
Don’t peek ahead at future labels.
Savor all, if you are able…


So read the note enclosed with thirty-one tiny candles, sent in a massive box with no logo.

The creators of my Candledar preferred to be discreet, but this discreet?

People had been raving about Chthonic’s scented candle collections for years. They offered themed sets for Halloween and Christmas/Hanukkah/Kwanzaa/Solstice, and also New Year’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Easter, Mother’s and Father’s Day, even the Fourth of July. You had to know where to look. Chthonic had no website or Facebook page. Nor did it post pictures on Instagram or other social media. Word of mouth and threads on obscure forums for die-hard candle enthusiasts were the only ways to get them.

Price was also an obstacle. The smallest set ran north of $200. Fourth of July had three candles: red, white, and blue, to burn on July 4th, 5th and 6th. For the Halloween Advent Candledar, I’d forked over $1K. One thousand bucks for treasures that would vanish as soon as I burned them. Why? Obsessives like me knew the answer. We were ravenous. We would not rest until we found the perfect candles, ones whose scents would creep into our nostrils and noggins, suffusing us with satisfaction. Candles were our windows to the world. Smells lasted far longer in the memory than sights. What smells would this grand collection (rimshot) entice me with as October unfolded?

Inside the much larger package were thirty-one smaller ones, labeled with numbered lids. Since the note warned me not to look ahead of today’s date, I opened the box labeled 1.

Pumpkin Spice. Of course that “fan fave” would be included in a Halloween assortment. I cringed. Go to Bath and Body Works or Yankee Candle – hell, even on Etsy – and you’ll know why. As soon as you walk in (or open the box, as the case may be), you’re swamped. Engulfed. Overpowered by PUMPKIN and SPICE in an all-caps miasma. If you’re me, you almost faint. I was hesitant to sniff this version’s fragrance, fearing nausea. I lifted the candle to my nose.

Absolutely nothing. I stuck the tip of my nose in the votive, suddenly afraid I’d gotten a defective batch. Were all of them odorless? If so, I needed to repackage and return them fast.

I paused, remembering the poem. “Burn one a day till Halloween.” Operative word: BURN.

I shrugged and headed to the kitchen, candle in hand. One flick of a butane lighter later?

Heaven. Paradise. Bliss. Whatever word you use to describe such a place or state, Pumpkin Spice evoked it. I now stood in Grandma’s kitchen, my mouth watering over the aroma of her best pie. She made it every Hallows’ Eve, as she called October thirty-first, and brought it to us. Her entry into a crappy nursing home had wrecked me. That pie was part of the reason. No longer would she bring a treat sweeter than candy to my house or send it in a care package. Instead, she’d languish in bed, surrounded by worse odors and stale air to entrap them.

I sank down at the table, sobbing over buried memories that had resurfaced with a vengeance. My tears threatened to put the candle out, but they sank into the hot wax instead. I didn’t care. I bawled my eyes out. At this rate, I’d never make it to the end of the month.

When I finally wiped my eyes and blew my nose so hard Dumbo would think I was his bestie, I was surprised to find my treasure spent. Only a film of pumpkin-colored wax remained.

These candles were smaller than I’d thought. The poem said “savor them all.” No kidding.

Using one more tissue, I composed myself, cleaned the votive and put it in my recycling bag.

Fortunately, the next few days and candles brought happy thoughts. Fuji Apple gave me a reminder to pick some up at the store before they ran out. Hot Cider Toddy, in the same vein, prompted me to make some. I enjoyed Campfire and S’mores immensely, even though they were rather summer-oriented, but my favorite of October’s first week was Fall Leaves.

Cartoonist Bill Watterson, creator of “Calvin and Hobbes,” had a word for how they smelled: “snippid.” The Chthonic candle, number seven, diffused this essence. Had the company taken actual autumn leaves, pulverized them in a food processor, and molded the slurry into the wax? They must have. How else could they have captured such crisp, earthy, vaguely-smoky musk? Inhaling it, I was teleported to my unraked childhood backyard.

With each candle burnt, my hunger grew, and not only because of the food-based scents. I found it increasingly hard to restrain myself from peeking at future candles. What would be the harm? However, I supposed unboxing them was like watching a TV show in the old days before binge-watching Netflix. You had to tune in next week, or at least the next day.

The next week of October heralded the arrival of – Damp Moss? Overcast Day? Toadstools? Were the powers that be at Chthonic playing practical jokes on me after luring me in? Who’d buy these candles, let alone burn them? I would. I’d sniff my $1K prize through to the end.

Damp Moss made me a bit queasy, but at least it didn’t seep into every nook and cranny of my house. Overcast Day, however, made me want to blow it out and throw it out before it burned itself out. It smelled like wet air combined with wet dog. As I held my nose shut and prayed it would burn fast, the taunts of school bullies on a soggy playground haunted me. So did thoughts of days getting shorter, darkness coming sooner. Foggy, stinky days. Overcast days not fit for football or even a brisk walk. Days that made you yearn to hibernate. As for Toadstools? It had a fungal pungency I kind of liked. It made me want mushroom pizza.

I don’t know if it was the candles or my increasingly-lethargic state, but I found my mind and senses wandering. Fresh scenes came upon me unbidden as the flames in the votives flared. I found myself in stubbled farm fields, bare forests, silent and deserted streets. Lost in time and place, I wended my way, wondering why I’d been transported to such solitary vistas. Was it all part of autumn meant? Coming to terms with the emptiness after the harvest?

The last candle that week was Petrichor, filling my home with the perfume of earth after rain.

October 14th dawned. I didn’t until the sun reached its zenith at high noon.

The next seven selections, as I was soon to discover – I didn’t peek – were touchy-feely. Not with names like Luscious Lip Gloss or Cotton Candy Cuddles, however. One after another, the darkly-hued candles presented themselves as burnt offerings: Angst, Despair, Lamentation, Penitence, Rue, Sorrow, Temptation. I blinked at that last one. Another fluke? My head wanted to think so, but my heart said no. I bought three six-packs of tissue boxes, preparing myself for an ordeal I didn’t want to face. I thought of buying Walmart’s version of Pumpkin Spice and burn it until Thanksgiving if it would spare me from the doldrums. Still, I soldiered on.

I cried. I cried some more. I filled all my wastebaskets to brimming. Here came the flashbacks of too many slights in grade school, too many C’s in high school, and too many pills in college. Here came the aftertaste of charcoal in my mouth at the hospital, from having my stomach pumped. Here came the disappointed sighs of my parents and that of Grandma’s last breath. Most of all, here came my failures and mistakes, each one stinging as if I’d made it yesterday.

Scents became salves. Sandalwood, cinnabar, black currant, and rose helped me heal. At the end of six days, they’d found their way into my pores, and I gladly scrubbed my sins away.


Last came Temptation. Ha! Why pile more of those on? I’d already faced too many.

It didn’t look shiny, sparkly or tempting. Nothing on the outside made me want to smell what lay beneath. What drew me to this candle was its aura, if that makes sense. I lit it as one part experiment, one part “getting my money’s worth,” and one part I didn’t yet understand.

Hints of jasmine mixed with salt and cream. My body twitched, guessing their origin: a bridal bouquet after the wedding was over. There’d be no sleep for this eternal virgin that night.

When exhaustion overcame me, an echo resounded in my mind. A clap of thunder without storms. I thrashed in my bedsheets. Sweat trickled down my neck and in other, less-visible places. Red-black streams. When I woke up, I knew I shouldn’t burn any more candles.

Yet I did.

Seven more, now that I’d yielded to Temptation. Seven that terrified me.

Hair. Tears. Flesh. Blood. Guts. Bones. Marrow.

Layer after layer of wax and Self were stripped away as the flames consumed them. Hair radiated no ghastly stench, but a whiff of my own oily locks, as if I hadn’t showered. Tears? I’d shed enough of those lately, so I drowned myself in salty ocean essence. The next three candles made me so hungry for red meat that I chowed down on all I could buy, making four grocery runs in seven days. At 3 AM, steak sandwiches had tremendous appeal. So did scraping my teeth over my own arms. I actually gagged myself with a cloth as the next two burned down, afraid to gnaw and afraid to know. The reek and tang of iron saturated me.

By October 28th, I was ready to check myself into a nursing home. Or a mental hospital.

The next candle smelled just like I expected: Pine, to house my lifeless body.

October 30th: Null. This one should have smelled like something, anything. Somehow it actually removed the smells, and maybe the memory of such, from the immediate area. They say that when you fall asleep or when you die, your sense of smell is the first to go.

Halloween dawned cold as steel, a relentless harbinger of winter.

I dared not burn the last candle or open the box labeled 31 until that night, at 11:11 PM.
I took the votive and my lighter upstairs, leaning on the banister with every step. Wishing I’d fall. That would end it, end me, end the madness that ate away at my senses. I undressed in considerable pain, not so much taking my clothes off as peeling them off. Like strips of…

My bones creaked as I squirmed into bed inch by inch. Before I lay down, I lit the candle.


Printed in capital letters in an Old English font was a single word:


Lamp off. Covers up to my chin. Eyes closed. Mind stilled.

Regular candles emit heat. VOID emitted cold, utter cold, Kelvin-scale glaciation. Not of the grave, but of space. Of the spaces between the stars, where nothing and everything awaited me. No aroma reached the wet, freezing insides of my nostrils, for there was none, except…


It’s every scent and none, amplified and nullified, concentrated and cancelled out.

As it enshrouded me, I recalled the second line of the poem that came with the collection:

“Discover what it truly means.”

Halloween is


beneath the candy consumption and creepy costumes. It means there is nothing to prove, and nothing to fear, when life’s myriad smells grow dim and finally fade.

Death is Chthonic, after all.

Credit: Tenet

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