Shishir (Winter) 2019, Short Stories - Yoko Morgenstern



Soda Pop Candy

By Yoko Morgenstern


Yuki’s house stood in the middle of a slope. Ten identical units of houses lined alongside the slope, on the left side. These were owned by a Japanese broadcasting corporation and rented out to its employees. The positions of the houses represented their male occupants’ positions in the company. Yuki’s was the third from the bottom.


On the top of the hill stood the Mazda’s. There lived Yuki’s friends, Sakura and Goro. The right side of the slope was a farm. Beyond the carrot field loomed a stable, where cows mooed in the mornings, during the days and sometimes at nights. This bucolic neighbourhood was still part of Yokohama. It was the early 1970’s.


On the other side of the hill, at the bottom of the slope, was a small shopping mall. Yuki and her mother went there every day. The floors were unpaved, the sheet-metaled roofcorrugated, and the naked bulbs dropped dim circles on the earthy ground. The lights were dim because in some far, far-away countries rich people decided to raise the oil prices. At the drugstore, Yuki’s mother complained about the price of toilet paper.


On Fridays the butcher shop sold chicken drumsticks and they were Yuki’s favourite. She called them Friday Meat. Wednesdays they offered whale meat, which people like the Mazdas would never have touched, but Yuki’s mother bought it sometimes. It tasted a little like beef, but much cheaper.


The Mazdas soon moved to the United Kingdom. Mr. Mazda was supposed to work at the BBC for three years as part of their exchange programs. Sakura and Goro were gone, and Yuki had no other friends in the area. A few months later she received a small package from the United Kingdom. It was a bag of gumdrops. Yuki had never seen black gumdrops. Liquorice was written on the packaging.


White and mauve moss phloxes were in bloom, strawberries inches above the soil, crept on the ground beside them. Yuki crouched down and picked a ripe strawberry and tossed it into her mouth. She had never had such a sweet strawberry. Then she heard the merry voice and the shush. She stood up. The voice came from over the concrete wall that faced her next-door neighbour’s backyard, the lower side of the hill.


She went up to the walland looked down into their backyard, her hands squeezed the top of the wall and her feet tiptoed. There she saw two girls, aged perhaps seven to ten, a little older than Yuki herself, playing together with jump ropes. The older girl seemed to have noticed Yuki in the corner of her eye but she didn’t say anything. They had just moved in a few weeks before. The sisters hadn’t made any friends yet but they had each other.


Yuki had a sandbox, a swing, and a small trampoline but she didn’t have a sibling. The swing was a two-seater face-to-face type, and when she was on it her side sank and creaked. So she needed company. Akira, she named her imaginary friend. “Do you like the swing?” she asked him, the swing still sinking and creaking, on the same side.

Yuki, the only child, didn’t really have a childhood. What she had was endless hours with adults. Especially with her mother. Yuki’s father was almost never home. Japan is striving, so is your father; you must understand, her mother would say.


Still, Yuki remembered two nights with her father. One night he brought her a wooden, antique transistor radio. Shortwave listening was a popular hobby in the ’70’s Japan. He tuned into the BBC, and they heard Mr. Mazda read the news, among the sandy noise.


That was the good night.


Yuki’s family slept in the same bedroom, in “kawa no ji,”shape of a kanji character that meant “river.” The ideal form for a family to sleep, in three vertical lines, the parents outside and the child inside. One night Yuki woke up, in the middle of the night, her father’s sake-breath beside her ear, his wet fingers groping between her legs.


That was the bad night.


“We are going on a field trip to The Viper Valley on Thursday,” said Ms. Katada, Yuki’s teacher at her kindergarten. Yuki couldn’t get more excited. The Viper Valley. Japanese pit vipers were said to have some magical power. Maybe, if she found one, it could listen to one of her wishes or two.


In the valley she strolled around, among mock strawberries, looking for a viper. Now she stood alone by the brook. She had lagged behind the group and began to feel a little scared. Then a boy from her class showed up from behind a bush. She felt relieved. Kunio was a big boy, a son of a popular sushi restaurant owner in town. He could take her back to the group.


A bunch of other boys in her class appeared, following Kunio. They formed a circle and surrounded Yuki.


“What are you doing here all by yourself?” asked Kunio.


“I was looking for a viper,” she answered.


The on-looking boys chuckled. She looked at Kunio, expecting him to say a kind, soothing word. He didn’t say anything but just grinned. His hair was cut very short, almost bald. The top of his head, where his hair was, seemed slightly green and looked like a young, poisonous potato with a green, map-like stain. As Kunio’s grin widened the boys started to laugh. Yuki didn’t know what to do, as she didn’t have siblings who would laugh at her.


Kunio then turned around and eyed his boys. The boys stepped forward and made the circle smaller. Yuki was still standing in the center of it.


“Take off your underwear,” said Kunio.


She understood clearly what she had just been ordered to do but she was not used to talking back or asking what? I think I’m in trouble, she thought to herself. Akira, she called her imaginary friend in her mind, in spite of herself. Akira, I think you should come here right now to save me. Akira. Akira?


Akira didn’t show up and Kunio repeated his command. She took her underwear off. Kunio and the boys burst out laughing. Yuki looked down on the ground, the grass field, ashamed, not knowing what she was supposed to say.


“Nice butt,” said Kunio. The boys laughed harder.


In the corner of her eye Yuki noticed something bob. She turned her eyes to the top of the hill. A girl from her class was looking down into the valley at them. And then she ran off. Yuki felt relieved. The girl would get Ms. Katada for help and everything was going to be fine. Yuki threw a hopeful gaze in the direction in which the girl disappeared.


Back at the kindergarten Ms. Katada told Yuki to remain in the classroom. All other children had already been picked up and she was alone in the room with her teacher.


“Rika told me that you made water in the valley. Did you?” Ms. Katada asked but actually she was telling.


Yuki didn’t say anything. She just looked down.


“Yes?” said Ms. Katada. “You know you were not supposed to pee like that, surely you know that.”


Yuki still didn’t say anything, looking down deeper. A drop of tear made a trace on her cheek.


“I’ll have to tell your mother about this,” the teacher said and called in Yuki’s mother, who had been waiting outside.


That’s good, mama is coming now, Yuki thought. Mama knows that I cry only when I’m angry.


Her mother came in and escorted Yuki out, nudging her back, apologizing to the teacher again and again. All the way to their home, the mother kept asking her why she had done that and telling her how disappointed she was.


Yuki didn’t say anything.


Yuki was at the candy shop in the mall. Her mother was across the alley, looking into the butcher’s glass showcase. The owner of the candy shop was an old man, sitting at the checkout, his face sunk behind a newspaper. There were shelves, standing in a dead angle from him. Yuki hid herself behind them. Displayed on the shelves were small candy boxes that were miniature plastic cans of soda pops look-alike. Coke, Fanta, Sprite. In those cans were white fizzing tablets with a given flavour.


Yuki stared at them for a long while. She was thinking of Akira. She hadn’t talked to him since the field trip. Perhaps they’d need something to break the long silence. Maybe Akira would like some soda pop candy. She peeked out through the shelves. Her mother was still chatting with her butcher, the old man still reading his newspaper.


One can of soda pop candy was 50 yen. She groped in her pockets to only find 40 yen. She looked out again. The old man didn’t even seem to notice that she was there. Yuki picked up a can of Fanta Orange. She broke the seal and twisted the lid. Tiny little white pills were in there. The artificial orange smell wafted. Maybe just the half of this, she thought. Just the half. She opened her left palm and gingerly poured half the can into it. Making a fist, she walked away from the store, stealthily. The old man didn’t take his eyes off the paper.


Yuki had a last look at her mother’s back at the meat shop. Right then her mother turned around and their eyes met. “Yuki,” her mother called, waving, stepping forward. “I’ve got some Friday Meat for you!”


Upon hearing that, Yuki scampered out of her way, and out of the shopping mall.


She ran, up the slope, clenching her fist. Her hand became moist and the candy started to melt. And she ran. Uphill and downhill. Ran and ran, passing in front of the former Mazda’s, passing the farm. The cows mooed.


She was approaching her house, the third unit from the bottom of the hill. And then she fell. She should have listened to her mother; her mother always told her never to run downslope. Yuki’s body slid down on the slant of the cobbles, a meter or two. She felt the burn on her right knee, her left arm catapulting toward the front.

Her left palm opened. The tiny white pills came out of it, rolling down the slope, farther, and farther away.



Yoko Morgenstern is originally from Tokyo. Her short stories and essays have appeared in various American and Canadian journals, such as The Montreal Review, Great Lakes Review, Flash Fiction Online, untethered, LooseLeaf, and The Globe and Mail. Since 2016, Yoko is a regular contributor to Newsweek Japan. Yoko is the author of Double Exile (Red Giant Books, Cleveland) and Eigo-no-Zatsudanryoku (Gento-sha, Tokyo). Her Japanese translation of The Ghost Brush by the Canadian novelist Katherine Govier was long-listed for the Japan Translation Award in 2015.


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