A mother visits a candy store to buy some sweets for her child after closing time.
|The last rays of the setting sun dimly lit his candy shop as Shunsuke placed a candle on a small table. Shadows flickered on the paneled walls as the flame danced to regain its balance on the wick. Sliding his bare feet into his wooden sandals, he began the process of closing his shop for the day. Going to the shallow wooden box of shrimp crackers, he took a sniff to smell the sea. Next, he went to the can of sugar coated peanuts, pinched a few of them, and popped them into his mouth. Rolling the nuts in his mouth, he munched as he approached the jar full of striped candy canes attached to white strings. He paused before deciding to forego another sugary snack, and stepped out into the last wisps of gray clouds framing the halo of the retired sun. His wooden sandals click clacked on the large flat stone just outside the entrance as he took in the cloth hanging over the doors proclaiming his business. Stepping inside, he slid closed the shutters.
Shunsuke went to his small worn table next to the cash box darkened with age to check his records for the day. He counted the coins and ticked off his sales one by one. A good day. The accounting done, he looked once again at his shop. He was the fourth, and perhaps, the last to own it, for his plans had gone awry.
The gong at the village temple sounded the end of the day. Time for a simple dinner, and then, a bath. Just as he rose to go into the adjoining room a knock rattled a shutter.
Shouting, “The shop is closed”, he turned away.
Another knock. A woman’s voice trembled. “I’m sorry. A candy, please, for my baby.”
He sighed, but he couldn’t turn down a mother in distress, no matter how slight. “All right, wait. I’m coming.”
Holding the candle in one hand, Shunsuke slid open the shutter. A scent of wood and earth wafted into his home. He stretched his neck around the door to see his customer. A small cry of surprise escaped his lips; the woman was standing in a simple yukata with her long hair down as if she had gotten out of bed. She hung her head in shame so he could not look into her face and held out a coin. Her bony hand looked drained of blood and again that tremor as she asked, “A candy cane, please.”
Embarrassed of his surprise and fear, Shunsuke mumbled a few words and went to get the candy. Putting the candy into a small bag, he half expected her to disappear, but when he turned around he saw the lower half of her yukata outside the door. He handed her the bag, and she dropped the coin into his hand. The coin felt like it had just come out of an icy stream. Not wanting to show his fright, he held on to the coin, and stood there watching as she walked away.
Shunsuke gripped the edge of the shutter. Without its support he feared he would fall, for she didn’t seem to be taking steps. He blinked hard, yet he couldn’t get rid of the image that she glided as she progressed down the street.
That evening as he ate his rice with pickles and slurped his soup, he wondered who his last customer had been. He knew none of his neighbors would have walked outside in their bed clothes. Before he went to bed, he spoke, as always, to his wife at his family’s altar. He spoke of the events of the day, and finally, he added a prayer for that forlorn woman.
The next morning he woke in surprise as sunlight filled his room. He had overslept for the first time in years. Sitting on the floor with his legs under the quilt cover, he realized that he had dreamt of his wife, Sayaka. Tears filled his eyes at the thought that she had visited him in his dreams. She had died just three months ago. They had been so happy expecting their first child. He remembered caressing her belly and speaking softly to the baby.
Now, there were inquiries from matchmakers, and though, he would have liked a woman’s voice in the house and meals other than his pathetic ones on his table, he couldn’t accept their offers. It seemed like betrayal. There would be no one to replace Sayaka.
He wiped away a tear, sniffed, and rose. He bundled his mattress, folded his quilt, and placed them in the closet. Putting his arms through the sleeves of his kimono, he stepped into his shop to prepare for another day.
When he opened his shutters, a boy was waiting. About five years old, he knew him well, for his mother had often lingered to talk with Sayaka. Watching the boy enter his shop with a finger in his mouth pondering what delight to buy, Shunsuke saw his own son standing there. A selfish thought entered his mind; why did he lose a child and wife and not someone else? Ashamed, he scolded himself, didn’t he know he was not the only one to suffer in this world? All day he tried to think of other things. Whenever a customer entered his shop he greeted them in good humor, and though this was from force of habit it eased his loneliness.
That evening, just after the gong from the temple signaled the end of the day, he again heard that knock on his door. “A candy, please, for my baby.”
The tremor in her voice left him weak-kneed and speechless. At last, he summoned his courage, lit a candle, and shouted, “Just a minute. I’m coming. Will it be a candy cane, again?”
There was no answer, so he took one out of the jar by the string. Placing it into a bag, he clutched it with the candle. As Shunsuke approached the door, he held an open palm in front of the candle flame as if to ward off an evil gust. He opened the door. Again, there was the scent of wood and earth and the outstretched hand with the small rectangular coin; the bronze a sharp contrast to the snow white skin. He didn’t have the courage to touch her hand. “Keep the coin. You need it more than me.”
The keening as she voiced her thanks nearly made him flee. The woman took the bag containing the candy and turned away. Shunsuke slowly counted to ten and stuck his head out the door. Seeing she was halfway to the corner, he determined to follow her. He got his paper lantern on a stick, and putting the candle inside, stepped out into the street.
Keeping his distance, he watched her turn at the crossroad. Not wanting to lose her, he quickened his pace till he reached the corner, and holding the lantern behind him, he peered down the street. Thus, he followed her to the edge of town. She didn’t stop, but continued on her way toward the town’s temple. Watching her enter the temple grounds, Shunsuke paused, for the temple had a graveyard. He knew it well, his family’s tomb was there. At that point, he told himself to go back, but he had a stubborn streak in him that made him fool-hardy.
The roof and pillars of the massive gate framed a winding path of flat stones shining in the moonlight. Far up the path she glided with her long black hair hanging limp across the back of her white kimono. Shunsuke stepped through the gate. He slipped on a wet stone and dropped the lantern. It fell on its side and burst into flames. Leaving it behind, he rushed up the glistening path, sensing her destination was near. When he saw her choose the next fork, he knew where she would end.
Why was she leading him to his family’s tomb? He wondered if he was insane to follow. He decided insane or not, her visits would never end unless he unveiled whatever secret she held.
Shunsuke took the last fork that led to his family’s gravestone. He gasped. Not only had she vanished, the lone sakura tree was in full bloom though it was August. In the soft glow of moonlight, the fallen pink blossoms shimmered around a crumpled paper bag. A candy cane leaned on the flowers he had placed two days ago. His heart pounded as the family name on the gravestone blurred and formed a face.
Sayaka was smiling. A baby was cradled in her arms. Softly, she called, “Shunsuke, come take our baby.”
Stunned, Shunsuke stood for a moment, then with wooden sandal in hand, he attacked the ground of the grave. Heaving dirt, he dug deeper and deeper. With a thud he reached the simple wooden casket. A cry pierced the night and sent a chill into his heart. Frantic, his fingers swept away the dirt, dug into the crack under the lid, and heaved the casket open.
A baby wailed in the arms of his wife. Though, three months dead, Sayaka looked as fresh as the day he buried her. Scooping the baby into his arms, Shunsuke fled, as the flesh of the corpse rotted away.