This is one of the finalists from Young Post's 2015 Short Story competition. The stories will run each week through the winter holidays, and the winning entry qill be published on April 2.
I still remember the chestnut vendors from back when I was a child. You would always smell them before you saw them. Just a hint of sweetness. Thick, almost bitter, like black coffee. Sometimes on cold evenings after track training, I would feel them before I even rounded the corner - a deep and murky magic, suspended in the light, winter air.
They return, year after year, always on a November day. For four months, through the laze of winter, they would stand sentinel over the street where I lived, heaping cartfuls of warmth and laughter. It brings to mind the Chinese saying, "sending coal in the snow", for indeed they did, despite the absence of snow in the region. And on a pleasant day, always in March, they would suddenly disappear. Winter melts away to a dewy spring.
I always wondered where they went in the spring and summer months. I once thought that perhaps they hibernated when the weather was warm, tucked away somewhere far from the hustle of the city. Perhaps they moved to desert islands, to soak up liquid rays of the sun, like solar panels. Balmy days spent burrowing in sandy beaches, drawing their magical power from the Earth.
Once upon a time I imagined that they would wake quietly and without warning, fully rested from their summer nap as the first blushed leaf falls from its branch. And overnight, while the city sleeps on, they would sprout from the ground onto busy streets, from the pavements outside the train station. It was like the first falling of snow. Or the bird that sings of springtime. For when I saw them, on the first morning, I would know the relief of crisp, cool air against my skin.
I still pass by the same street on my way home from work, although I have now moved into a private estate, a few blocks down. It is new, and cold, and ugly; like the rest of the ugly buildings behind them. Like everything else about this place.
As I emerge from the underground, on this fateful February day, I am greeted by a familiar smell. The floating burntness; at once of coffee, of sugar, of fire. Even now, I find them a peculiar sight. These chestnut vendors and their carts are not at all like our urban jungle. Always rickety, bearing a cast-iron wok, a wooden bucket, a hot stovetop. Sometimes, there is an afterthought of haphazardly criss-crossed wooden planks. This one teeters precariously on the bustling sidewalk, enveloped in a charred, slightly burned cloud.
"Sugar-roasted chestnuts! Sweet sugar-roasted chestnuts!" they chant.
Their voices are rough and warm, like crinkly eyes and laugh lines.
"Quail eggs for ten dollars! Roasted sweet potatoes, sweetness guaranteed!"
A little girl with plaits wants one to warm her hands. The plaits are pulled back too tight, making her look surprised. Old Lady inspects the mass of sweet potatoes piled high on the worn planks, hot and cosy in their dusty jackets. Nimbly, she chooses one snuggling right under the sackcloth. A small one - to fit the little hands - wrapped and twisted in a brown paper packet.
The girl breaks the sweet potato in half. Her eyes widen. She holds it up, pretending it's the sun. It's refreshing to see that even though I've lost my sense of childlike wonder, not everyone has.
I step closer, lean in - close enough for the smokiness to find its way to my hair and clothes. I know it will linger long after I leave.
For a while I fumble with my wallet, and fish out a 10-dollar coin. The smoke washes over me in a welcoming embrace. I think of the soft-brown pebbles, of how it always seemed impossible to release them from the clutch of their deep mahogany shells.
"Ten dollars worth of chestnuts, please."
I press the coin into the palm of her yellowed glove. Old Man, with his soot-stained white hair, grunts and heaves the mammoth mining spade into the wok. He grins, eyes twinkling with mischief. I remember how, many moons ago, I would imagine that he was one of Snow White's mining dwarfs. He would uncover a spade-full of burnished jewels, and dump them in the wooden bucket; a satisfying thud, thud, thud.
I feel it right above my ear, like a damned itch or parasite. It snorts at my dizzy little fancy.
The nagging, unwelcome resident - it feeds on the dirty laundry inside my head. It swells, it swells, it swells.
My temporary day-dream is abruptly shattered by a ringing, sing-song voice.
"Chestnuts, 10 dollars, comin' right up!"
Old Lady digs a gloved hand into the wooden bucket, grabbing a handful at a time. It goes into the paper packet, wrapped, and twisted. She hands them over, smiling with her eyes. I thank her. They are dark and smooth, these ones. Almost like chocolate, but waxed over to a glossy shine. I fish one out and turn it over between my fingers. Coal-like flakes of salt rub off. A slightly sticky speckle of sugar glistens in the early moonlight.
I settle down on a wooden bench, a little further down the road. The paper packet glows warm on my lap. I crack them and gingerly, slowly, peel back the halves of the shell; the way my mother used to patiently uncase them for me. She had always thought of me as a bit of a slow child.
"She's always so absorbed in her little day-dreams, you know? I suppose it's normal for children her age - but really! She hardly bothers with what's going on around her in the real world. I turn around and she's off in a trance again, that child!"
It was true, and I couldn't explain it. Sometimes day-dreaming and reality would get a little jumbled. A little too jumbled for my mother's liking - for anyone's liking, really.
But I loved living on the edge of a dream. The sky could dissolve, it could fall like coloured glass at sunset. Leaves could do a little dance as the wind plucked at violin strings. I could sleep on a hammock hanging from a crescent sliver of the moon. I ruled the realm of the marvellous. My subjects did not speak, but I listened. I heard everything. I saw everything, felt everything - pain, joy, and endless desperation.
And then slowly, one by one, they started to go away. The itch - the cynical voice - it grew. It latched onto my heart, it told me how they laughed - at me. Me and my mad, mad fantasies. Cynicism taunted me, and tore down my castles in the air. The cynical voice became my best friend. The clouds left first. Then the leaves could find no reason to dance. The wind stopped playing bells and violins, the sky became a concrete grey; permanently overcast. Sometimes on rainy days I would wait by the window, hoping to see the raindrops in their gleeful races. They never stopped by. When they came, they simply slid down the windowpane, and dropped off.
On my 13th birthday, I made a list of things I was willing to give up so that I could have my day-dreams back. On my 16th, I emptied my coin collection into the wishing well. And when I turned 20 and utterly jaded, I blew the candles on top of the cake, and stopped hoping all together. I had resigned myself to the fact that my day-dreams would not come back. I was grown up; an adult. And being an adult meant no more childish fantasies or day-dreams.
Now, sitting on a wooden bench under a lonely sliver of the moon, I wished upon the stars, or the sun, or the half-peeled chestnut in my hand that the cynical voice would, if it would, please, please go away. It had been so easy to stamp out the day-dreams, and yet it seemed impossible to get them back.
There was nothing inside the shell. I dipped my finger into it. Perfectly empty, a brown husk. A dud? Bewildered, I shook the paper packet. It resounded, hollow, like a bagful of aged, dried-up cicada shells. I looked back up the road.
They were gone. All of them - the elderly vendors, the onlookers, people on the streets. The rickety cart huffed and puffed in the stillness, inky and absolute. Smoky mist continued to rise from the stove. It hung mid-air over the vendor's cart - like a halo, or a ghost. I heard a soft purring come from the cart. Curious, I stood up from the bench and walked over to it.
As I got closer, the purring turned into a rumble. The wok started to shake violently, spewing chestnuts everywhere. Suddenly, the rickety legs of the cart started to move. They creaked and twisted like an old man's legs that hadn't been used properly for years, rusty and in need of a good stretch.
As the legs straightened out, the cart grew taller, towering over me. Empty of its chestnuts, and fed up with the cold weather, it took its first step. Like a giant, spindly spider, it stepped down the street, one leg after another, the smoky mist still rising from its stove like struggled breaths.
It was extraordinary. Who had ever heard of a walking chestnut cart before? Certainly not me. I wondered where he was going. Perhaps he would march to the Caribbean. I pictured him, sporting a sun hat on top of his wok, his shaky legs struggling on the soft sand. As I gazed on at the cart, plodding along on his path to a warmer climate, I was brought back to reality by a sharp yell of: "Sugar-roasted chestnuts! Sweet sugar-roasted chestnuts!"
I shook my head. The chestnut cart was perfectly still; sitting exactly where it had been in the first place. The vendors and commuters rushing by didn't seem to think anything unusual had just happened.
And then I realised. What I had been longing for had happened. My day-dreams were back. It seemed like once I had given up looking for them, they had come back to me.
I laughed. I threw my head back, oh, I laughed. I laughed till my sides felt like they were bursting.
I thought cynicism had taken over and stamped out any hope of dreaming or imagination. But that wasn't the case at all. Of course I knew that the chestnut cart couldn't get up and walk; not in our world anyway.
But that's when I realised. There are many worlds - as many as you'd like.
I was bursting at the seams, brimming with the excitement of my fantastic realisation.
"Hey. Did you see that?" I ask the cynical side of me.
The cynical voice doesn't say anything. I taunt it, my nemesis, my friend. I cry out loud, into the void of the evening.
"Isn't that what they say? Do not let the world make you hard? Do not let the bitterness steal your sweetness? Take pride that even though the rest of the world may disagree, you still believe it to be a beautiful place?"
My heart swells. The piercing sound of everyone laughing and sneering at my day-dreams - the misery and confusion of feeling alone - would no longer get me down.
I back away from the cart softly. For a brief moment, the warped world wraps and twists in on itself.
And then suddenly, as if someone had hit play on a frozen video, life continues. The onlookers carry on contemplating their food choices. The chestnut vendors, they spin their magic with a mysterious sparkle in their eyes.
Yes. There are many worlds - as many as you'd like.