Chinese Stories in English
Cotton Candy (Reprint)
Can Xue (Deng Xiaohua)
What I liked to watch most was cotton candy being spun. The machine was set up like a flat-bottom wok. Refined sugar went in, and after the handle got turned a while, sparkling stuff that looked like a cotton boll or a silkworm cocoon would come out. It really was marvelous.
The old woman selling the cotton candy had eyes like puffy heads of garlic that she kept focused on what she was doing. She never once lifted her head to look at us. We circled around the balls of cotton candy, staring and trying hard to keep from drooling, secretly hoping that more and more people would come to buy because then we could keep standing there watching.
Of course, that didn’t mean we got to eat the cotton candy. The old lady was never so generous. We stood there because it was a feast for our eyes. Every ball that got spun was different, with its own unique beauty that only our eyes could discern. After it was spun, in a sharp, crisp voice the old lady would say to the kid who paid the money, "Here you go!" Then our gaze would switch as one to the ball of stuff in the kid's hand. We weren’t jealous, we were sharing in the delicacy – with our eyes.
Ah, such a wonderful thing running through my entire life! That precious stuff glittering like crystals in the sunshine, the blade rotating magically, what joy it brought me. At the time I told myself I’d be a cotton candy vendor in the future.
Also, the old lady’s unhurried concentration at work was a riddle to me. Even with my own enthusiasm soaring, sometimes I couldn’t avoid being distracted by things like a crow flying overhead or parents cursing and calling us home to eat. But this old lady would never raise her droopy, puffy-garlic eyes again once she set up the "black pot" and people got in line in front of her stand to buy candy. I think the reason her cotton candy balls were so incomparably wonderful was absolutely inseparable from the concentration she put into them.
But exactly what sort of person was this old lady with hands like tree bark?
I’d only eaten cotton candy twice, and they were the most incredible experiences under the sun. When I put the supple white tufts of translucent stuff into my mouth the first time, it melted away into nothingness. It had no taste. I’d distinctly seen the cotton candy being spun from refined sugar, so how could it not taste sweet? I went to ask my friends Beauty and Bright, but it just made them both laugh at me and call me a "grunge". I got mad and growled at them, and when I growled, they lit out of there fast.
But those kids were really into eating cotton candy. If it was just air, they wouldn’t have hounded their parents at home for some more money to go enjoy the stuff. I knew them well. Maybe my sense of taste was the problem.
Later I was cheeky enough to ask my parents for some more money. This time I got a tiny pear-shaped ball of the stuff. I cautiously stuck out my tongue to taste it, but it still didn’t cut it. The little bit on the tip of my tongue melted before I knew it and I couldn’t taste anything. I’d really been had. Could the old lady have conned me? Didn’t seem like it. She’d treated me exactly the same as she treated everyone else. Besides that, she didn’t know me at all. She’d never taken a look at anyone in our crowd.
Extreme frustration aroused my boundless imagination. If I ever accumulated the capital to become a vendor, maybe I could spin cotton candy out of thin air. I got excited by this secret idea of mine and smiled broadly half way through the night. I’d certainly spin the prettiest cotton candy ever. It wouldn’t be white, but some unimaginable color many times prettier than a rainbow in the sky and even prettier than the corals in the sea. And when you tasted it, it absolutely wouldn’t taste like sugar, but better than anything you’d ever tasted before, better than…. No, I couldn’t think of anything to compare it to.
The old lady ended up going bankrupt. She’d earned so much money every day, how could she have gone bankrupt? I can’t figure it out.
The old bankrupt did come back to our street to spin cotton candy, though. Kids formed an orderly line and, once the one in front paid, she put her head down and cranked her machine. She didn’t have any sugar, though. She was spinning air, and everyone started to laugh. The old woman froze for a moment, then took her other hand, the one holding the money, and put it up to her eye for a closer look. The kid who’d paid the money snatched it back out of her hand and walked away. She didn’t get mad. She went back to turning the handle uselessly, without giving us a second look.
I felt so sorry for her when I saw that. I ran home, stole a small jar of refined sugar and came back outside. I squeezed my way into the crowd and put the jar on the old lady's work board. As soon as I turned my back, I heard a "plop". The old lady had swept the jar onto the ground, and the kids were going crazy spreading around the sugar that had been scattered around. She was still turning the machine’s handle with a wooden expression on her face. The kids whispered that she was "crazy."
Day after day passed by, and each day fewer and fewer kids gathered around her. In time no one came out to watch her mad behavior except me. I stuck by her, reluctant to see things end. I was often absent, of course, either because I had chores to do at home or because something else tempted me, but for some reason I never stopped thinking about what was going on. I vaguely felt that as long as the old lady kept spinning, eventually a fluffy white treasure would come forth from the machine. Maybe she wasn’t actually bankrupt, but just couldn’t afford to buy sugar. Maybe she deliberately didn’t use any sugar – otherwise why would she have reached out to sweep the jar I gave her to the ground?
One day after I finished drawing water for my family, I went over to the old lady’s spot. I saw her sitting on a wooden bench, not moving a muscle, like she’d turned to stone. This was a rare sight. It was drizzling and she was soaking wet, but in the past, she’d move her equipment under the tea house awning when it rained. I got nervous – what the heck was going on? Could she have died? I got close and peered into her face.
"No matter how hard you work, hungry guys will always eat up everything you make," she blurted out suddenly. But her lips hadn’t moved, so how could she have said it? Maybe she’d just thought it. Could I actually read her thoughts?
A thick coat of yellow rust already covered her cotton candy machine, and a hole had rusted through the metal siding. I stretched out my trembling hand to give the rusty blade a spin. It gave out a terrible clang and my mind went blank. All of a sudden I was sitting on the ground. I tried hard to remember what had happened but I couldn’t think of exactly what that sound was. Seemingly, I’d been shut up inside a metal chamber and someone had pounded a steel plate with a hammer. No, the sound was more crazy scary than that.
It was a long time before I came to my senses. Looking up, I saw the old lady was already gone, but a big ball of cotton candy sat at the bottom of the machine’s bowl. It was seven-color cotton candy. A dirty hand grabbed it immediately and took it away. It was Beauty, a sickly little girl. She ate it as she was running away, and in the blink of an eye it had disappeared into her mouth. I caught up with her from behind and grabbed her. Her mouth opened wide and she started to cry right away.
"Spin out another one exactly like it to pay me back!" I ordered her. She came back to the machine, weeping and trembling. She was a short kid and could reach the rotary handle only by standing on tiptoes on a bench.
I stuck two fingers in my ears, but oddly enough, Beauty wasn’t the least bit afraid of the noise the machine made. She strained to turn the handle again and again, and sweat covered her face. When she stopped, no cotton candy had appeared. She looked radiant standing on the bench. All her sickness seemed to be gone. She stood there like a brave little soldier, hands on her hips, and looked at me.
I glanced under the machine and saw that some gears and screws had fallen off. I told myself that the machine was done for and would no longer respond to Beauty’s efforts. I dragged my feet on the way home because I knew my father would be standing at the door yelling that I still had to help carry the vegetables.
I couldn’t figure out what was going on for a long time after that. I’d still see the old woman sitting motionless in front of that pile of junk, and if I edged closer, I could hear a voice coming from her breast. Sometimes it stammered, speaking of her past glories, and sometimes it was just a string of curses.
One time I smelled a faint stink emanating from her body. When I reached out my hand to feel her forehead, her eyelids opened and she looked up at me. I was stopped still by the strange way she looked at me. In a dark place deep in my memory, I sensed several small jars being opened and the scent of fragrant honey floating in the air. I opened my mouth but said two irrelevant words: "catch up." It was these two irrelevant words that completely obliterated my memory. The old lady’s gaze turned away at that moment she didn’t look at me anymore.
I saw Little Positive and the others pick up the gears from under the machine and take off. They said they could use them to make tops to play with. So I played with them and their tops under the scorching sun that day until the sweat was pouring off me like rain. This game, stimulating as it was, couldn’t satisfy me, though.
By early evening we were tired of playing with the gears and threw them in the creek. "That wasn’t any fun. That wasn’t any fun,” Little Positive and Little Hero mumbled with sad faces. I suggested that we go see the old lady.
When we got there, the old lady was gone. That’s when I remembered that every time I’d met with her, the two of us had been alone. I asked Little Positive whether he’d seen the old lady and he answered it was weird, but he hadn’t seen her in a long time. Besides that, none of them believed she would sit by a pile of junk every day, so I must have been seeing things.
I stood there examining that pile of junk for a long time after Little Positive and the others had gone. I even thought about appropriating the stuff for myself and taking it home. I didn’t dare do it, of course. My father would’ve killed me if I had.
The old lady was sitting there again the next day.
"Hey, Little Green, Little Green. You’re looking down,” Little Beauty told me with a smile. I felt like all the kids could see right through me. They must be totally jealous of my idea to become a street vendor. As likely as not, some of them would secretly try to ruin plans.
But where could I go to raise the money? I’d have to force the old woman to tell me the secret recipe for spinning cotton candy out of thin air; and also get her to tell me how to keep the machine from producing that unholy noise. If it wasn’t for that noise, I could've already spun out a whole bunch of seven-color cotton candy, couldn’t I?
Ah, she waved to me! I saw her in the distance waving her hand! I put down my rice bowl and ran toward her, paying no attention to my mother’s curses behind me. When I ran up to her, strange as it seems, she’d changed back to the way she was before, sitting there motionless as a stone with eyes like puffy garlic.
"Ma’am, ma’am, hurry up and teach me your secret recipe."
I said that three times.
She pointed her finger to where the machine had been. I looked and saw that it wasn’t there anymore. There were only flies licking the ground where some syrup had dripped.
The old lady got up and made a motion like she was turning the handle. Once again I heard that clanging sound that I’d heard before. After she’d given it a few turns, she plopped back down on the bench with a dejected expression on her face and spat out “Here you go.” The words came from her mouth, not from her chest. I looked down and nothing was there. My hopes had been shattered, and how could I reconcile myself to that?
For so many years I’d held onto only one dream, to be a street vendor, the kind of magician-vendor who could not only spin cotton candy out of the air, but could spin out the ding-dong of golden bells as well. The first step, I’d have to accumulate the capital to buy a machine to practice on. But I didn’t have any money, and without money, I’d have to spin some treasure out of the air that I could turn into capital. And do it without practicing.
The old lady was my only hope. I’d seen her make cotton candy empty handed, so my hopes were still alive. As I was debating with myself like this, a strange and bold plan started to develop in my mind.
That morning, when all the adults were off working at the bamboo goods factory, Little Positive and I took the opportunity to initiate our plan to kidnap the old lady. Everything went smoothly, surprisingly so. We didn’t have to use the rope and the chair because the old lady let us manipulate her without making a sound. We got on either side of her, put our arms around her and pulled her along, with her two old feet dragging on the ground. She was rather heavy, and by the time we’d dragged her to the maintenance tool shed, we were so tired we were about to faint. We flung her to the floor, and then we fell to the floor ourselves and stayed there for a long time.
"Wait’ll she gets hungry and see if she won’t talk then!" Little Positive said viciously.
We knew she only had one drunkard son living with her, so we wouldn’t be bothered for some time.
We looked over at her and saw she was curled up on the floor in the fetal position. One hand was taking the dust from the floor and rubbing it on her face, and her face was already as black as a pot. Her eyes rolled around slowly, like a crocodile’s. Her movements made Little Positive and I uneasy. Could she be plotting something?
“You want something to eat, old lady?”
As soon as I said that, my eyes were blinded by dirt. I couldn’t open them for the pain. Turns out the old lady had thrown a handful of dirt at me, and she’d thrown it accurately with some force. I totally didn’t expect it. I heard Little Positive kicking her.
"Water! Water!" I cried.
I was in such pain, I don’t remember how Little Positive got me home. The next day I also had puffy-garlic eyes. Although I couldn’t leave the house, I still remembered the tool shed. How was she doing in there? I made it through to the afternoon when my parents left. Then I got out of bed, covered my eyes with a towel and moved toward the door. I could hear running footsteps outside, and then someone came inside.
“Little Green, Little Green, there’s cotton candy all over the floor in the tool shed. She’s almost buried in it!" It was Little Positive.
"Oh, man, we're so stupid! Why didn’t we stay there to see her do her magic?”
"She wouldn’t’ve let us watch."
"It's too bad all the candy got dirty, otherwise we could’ve sold it for a lot of money. The maintenance guys swept it all into the trash. What a buzz kill.”
Little Positive and I found the door to the maintenance tool shed wide open when we eventually got there. She was sitting on top of a stack of brooms. I kept wiping my tears with the towel and hated the old lady something fierce. I heard a group of kids on the road coming toward us, and before long they were standing in a long line outside the door.
"Here you go!" The old lady said to the boy in the front of the line. He grabbed the air with both hands and walked away excitedly.
"Here you go!" the old woman said to the girl who was next in line. She also grabbed the air with both hands and walked away excitedly.
The old lady sat on the brooms acting like a parent. Little Positive and I were stunned. These kids, some of them from our street and some from other places, what were they and the old lady doing? Each kid pulled a bit of money from their pocket and gave it to her. The money was real. She collected it carefully and put it into the front inside pocket of her jacket, and in a while the pocket was bulging.
I peeked outside the door and was really surprised – the line was so long I couldn’t see the end of it. The maintenance workers didn’t mind that their work had been interrupted. They stood off to one side watching the kids with great interest. From the looks on their faces, they might as well have been on a holiday.
On a whim, Little Positive crowded in line. When it was his turn, without even looking up the old lady told him, “Go away."
He wouldn’t yield his place, and the other kids got mad. Some of them ganged up on him and knocked to the floor, which left him very much the worse for wear. I picked him up and we walked out the door to the boos of the other kids.
We went to my house. As I lay on my bed, the old question still tormented me: How could I accumulate the capital to become a street vendor? Little Positive, sitting beside the bed, had an idea. I could go rob the old lady. After all, she’d gotten her money by scamming people. I rejected the idea, but he wouldn’t give in. "She has just been scamming people," he said.
I really didn’t think the old lady was a con artist. I’d seen the seven-color cotton candy with my own eyes, and I’d seen Little Beauty scarf it up. The excited looks on the faces of those kids we’d just seen told me that, even if I hadn’t seen the stuff in their hands, the stuff did exist. I couldn’t rob her, I couldn’t burglarize her place, and kidnapping her hadn’t done any good. So, how was I going to accumulate any capital?
"If you get in the kids’ good graces and get them to listen to us, will they give us money?"
Little Positive said that nonsense with his eyes wide open.
The reality was that the kids not only didn’t listen to us, they’d beaten Little Positive up just now. Maybe the key point was that I’d only be able to do what I wanted if I built up some credibility first. The old lady had spun so much cotton candy with her machine over the last several years that, now, everyone thought of her as the cotton candy vendor. Lately she hadn’t had the machine or even any sugar, but everyone was still used to the idea that she was a vendor. Yeah, but she’d had so many years of practice. Obviously no one was going to believe us two snot-nosed little kids, and if we actually tried to con people, no one would be fooled. We couldn’t see any prospects for the future no matter how we looked at it, but we weren’t about to give up.
Someone pushed the front door open. I thought it was my parents, so I just lay there and didn’t move. Little Positive stood up and went out to look. When he came back his face was flushed. He poked me and gestured for me to get up right away.
When I looked, I was surprised to see the old lady sitting in the outer room.
When Little Positive and I went over to her, she held out both her hands to us. We each took one and stood there waiting for her to speak.
"You can’t scam people,” she said flatly.
Little Positive and I nodded vigorously.
We thought she had more to say, but she seemed to be tired of speaking. Her garlic-puffy eyes drooped and she dozed off, still holding our hands in hers. I was worried my parents would come home and ask questions, so I wanted to urge her to leave. As soon as I tried to do so, though, she became angry. She opened her eyes and said that I was "impetuous.
Later, when my parents did get home, they looked at the old lady sitting by the table but didn’t ask any questions at all. Little Positive was too impatient to wait around, so he went on home.
At dinnertime, the old lady stayed to eat with us. My parents didn’t seem to see anything unusual in this, as though she were a member of the family rather than a street vendor from two streets away. When she was finished eating, she got up to leave. As she was walking toward the door, she turned around abruptly and said to me:
"Me, I go to sleep in that cotton candy every day, and dream."
When she spoke, a sour smell came from both her mouth and her body. I mulled over her words as I watched her walk off into the distance. Until my mother called me from behind.
"Your father and I can rest easy,” she said, “now that you finally have a goal in life."
For once, my father didn’t chew me out. He just stared at me for a long time with a doubtful look on his face.
It was sunny again the next day. I went over there after I finished fetching water and spreading the vegetables out to dry in the sun. From a distance I saw kids standing in a long line, but there was no old lady in front of them. Little Positive, I saw, was sitting where the old lady had been sitting. He was exchanging knowing looks with the other kids.
He signaled for me to come over, so I went and sat beside him on the bench. One after another, kids came up and patted our palms. They were quite serious about it, and I felt happily satisfied even though they didn’t give us any money. Me and Little Positive and the other kids were all immersed in daydreams of seven-color cotton candy, and the secret corners deep in our minds were opened one by one. A sweet rich fragrance permeated the air.
21st Century Chinese Literature Compendium; 2002 Short Stories, p. 30
Translated from version at http://bbs.tianya.cn/post-books-16646-1.shtml
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