Fiction

The market seller

EMILY

IN THEIR SMALL and trusted circles, people still talked about the woman in secretive whispers. She came to the weekend markets only once. Sold her candy at a temporary stall used by visiting vendors set between a fresh flower stall and the second-hand bookshop.

It had been a clear, cold June morning, full of bowerbird calls. The pencil-thin crescent of a new moon curled low in the muted sky. Crisp winter light filled the market hall. The air was rich with aromas of black coffee and freshly baked bread. Emily, the bookshop owner, was in the middle of setting up a display of antique editions of fairytales. She’d paused to blow into the cup of her hands to warm them when the woman had arrived and caught her eye. Her skin was sallow, though still young. Her hair hung over her face in lacklustre knots.

There was something about her: the way she took her time, as if movement caused her physical pain; how she shook as she smoothed a piece of tattered velvet over her trestle table. She paused, then took a tentative step into a thin piece of sunlight, her trembling hands outstretched for warmth. When she tilted her chin upwards and her hair fell away, revealing her face, Emily froze. It was the kind of moment that made the world slow down to such a pace that tiny details – her hollow eyes, the way her shoulders curled inwards – were sharp enough to prick your skin.

‘You right there, Em?’ Charlie called from his flower stall, holding a bucket of flannel flowers. ‘You look like you’ve seen a ghost, mate.’

‘Yeah, yeah, fine,’ Emily said, with a smile and dismissive wave. ‘Just déjà vu, I think,’

The woman busied herself, unpacking an assortment of enamel tins from the bags slung over her shoulders. The small flask she snuck to her lips, wincing as she swallowed, didn’t seem to stop her hands shaking.

Emily glanced around. Charlie was watching now, too. So was Jen in the bakery. And Baz on the cheese stall. All the vendors had slowed down, watching the woman from the corners of their eyes, their brows furrowed. Were they all thinking the same thing? Why does she seem so familiar?

The woman pinned a small handwritten sign to the tattered piece of velvet.

For sale. 50c each.

With slow and purposeful movements, she took the lids off the dozens of enamel tins and upended them. Piles of ruby-coloured candies tumbled onto the tabletop and glistened in the light. Individually wrapped in clear cellophane, each one looked like treasure.

Soon a chorus of sounds rose above the normal market hum: the crinkle of cellophane and the gasp of surprise and pleasure as candies were popped into mouths. Word spread quickly. Customers and stallholders alike started to swarm to the woman’s table.

Watching their unabashed desire as they clamoured for a sweet morsel gave Emily a knotted ache in her stomach. The young woman didn’t appear to communicate directly with anyone, aside from an occasional slight nod towards her enamel tins for payment, which she didn’t seem to be counting. After a while, all Emily could see was a multicoloured patchwork of people clustered around the woman’s table, their arms outstretched and reaching for a sea of shimmering red candies; coins rained against tin. Emily splayed her toes in her boots to get a better grip of the ground beneath her feet. She wouldn’t admit to herself that the feeling coiling around her body, pulling tightly in her chest, was compulsion.

For as long as she could, Emily hung back among the shelves of her shop. Being near books was one of the few things that truly comforted her. Her love of fairytales in particular, for the hope in darkness within them, had been the reason she’d started her market bookshop after Robert left her with barely anything following their divorce. Emily picked up a Victorian anthology of fairytales and poems, ran her fingertips along its edges, thinking of all the ways second chances might arrive in a life. Of how much she had to offer someone, how much love she had to give, if only she could find the courage. She pictured the brochure she’d kept on her fridge for so long, the cover had almost completely faded. It didn’t matter: Emily knew the details by heart.

When the mid-morning shadows started to lengthen, curiosity finally overpowered her. She squished through the elbows and nudges of the crowd until she was in front of the woman and her ruby-coloured candies. The young woman didn’t look up. She was curled in on herself, her gaze downcast and indifferent.

Emily dropped her fifty-cent piece into one of the overflowing tins. The surge of people behind her pushed her thighs into the trestle table’s edge. After hesitating slightly, Emily picked a candy, unwrapped it and popped it into her mouth.

The sugar-crystal shell slowly melted into the delicate flavour of ripe apple, filling her mouth with sweet juiciness. Emily could do nothing but close her eyes, hold her hand to her throat.

It was only after she swallowed the last of the red sugar that she noticed the aftertaste, an insatiable, lingering tartness. It was a recognisable, salty tang. Though she’d started to turn and walk away, Emily found herself pushing back through the crowd, another fifty-cent piece in her hand, reaching for another candy. And then, another. Her mouth was full of sweetness, then bitterness.

Later, no one would admit it. Even as they whispered about the woman, months and years after that one market day, no one would ever acknowledge that the lingering flavour of her candies was the strange and unsettling taste of a pinprick or paper cut.

 

EVE

AFTER YOU WERE gone, it was Muddy who taught me to make my heart edible.

My lessons in her kitchen started with packet-mix cakes. Muddy used some of her first foster-care payment to buy a bag of them, and she unpacked each box, arranging all the sachets on her green laminate counter as if engaging in royal ceremony. When she was done, she dusted her clean hands and turned to me with one eyebrow raised.

This is how we’ll get to know each other, Eve, through baking. And, first things first, no baker worth their salt is without an apron.

From a kitchen drawer she took two aprons and tied one around her waist. Across its front, printed in playful lettering: NOW WATCH ME WHIP IT. She held the other out to me. I tied it around my waist and looked down. Mine read: CALL ME DARTH BAKER.

Aprons are to bakers what lucky caps are to surgeons. You know? When we bake, we’re no different to surgeons. We’re in the trade of healing, too. Muddy punctuated the air with her wooden spoon.

All I could imagine was how much we would have pissed ourselves laughing if you’d been there with me. You would’ve chided yourself for it, of course. You couldn’t abide rudeness or mockery. All the same, if we’d been in that kitchen together, listening to Muddy say that baking shithouse cake mix made us the same as surgeons, I would’ve given you our what-the-fuck face, and you wouldn’t have been able to stop yourself from laughing.

I loved making you laugh.

No surgeon could save you. You made sure of that.

My eyes welled. I looked at my feet as I clenched then unclenched my fists. The afternoon sun filled Muddy’s kitchen and turned the green laminate the shade of cough medicine.

You’re keeping that story inside you, but that’s a bad, bad idea. That shit’s gonna turn you rotten, Muddy said in a quiet voice as she started tearing open the sachets for a chocolate cake.

There are a hundred ways to transform your mess. Take it from me who’s tried them all: baking is one that won’t get you in trouble. Take that bitterness inside and melt it down. Add a tonne of sugar and make it into something irresistible. Then, Muddy paused to meet my eye, you’ve got something to show for all the fuckers in this life who broke you to pieces.

She winked, and punctured a can of icing with her can opener. You can start again, Eve. You can make something new, with a new heart.

After a moment, I reached for a mixing spoon.

 

EMILY

THE YOUNG WOMAN at the markets stayed curled in on herself that day like a lame thing. Occasionally she would sip from her flask and wipe her eyes. Her table was empty soon after lunchtime. She unpinned her sign, folded up the velvet cloth with her shaking hands and left. She had not said a word.

The rest of the afternoon, the market was quiet. People milled about; no one seemed able to meet anyone else’s eye.

Dusk fell. The markets packed up and everyone went home. Plates of casserole and salad were served around tables; pizzas were delivered with soft drinks and garlic bread for movie nights on the couch; milk was warmed and whiskey was poured; scented creams were smoothed into skin; mouthwash was swilled between teeth. The stars came out. The thin moon rose. The sky turned jet black.

That night, the town fell into a murky sleep and blue-tinged nightmares.

The next morning, standing in line at the petrol station, Emily overheard the conversation between the attendant and the customer in front of her, one telling the other how a figure in his dream had walked the line where the bush met the bay, leaving the fluffy white-and-pink cups of blueberry ash flowers wilted and brown in his wake.

‘Could you tell who or what it was?’

‘No. You?’

‘Nope.’

‘What about apples?’

‘Only thing I’ve been able to smell all morning.’

Later, when she was at the supermarket, Emily heard women in the check-out queue saying they’d woken from their dream with bruises on their arms, while others said they’d woken with a fright and a film of cold sweat on their skin. At the markets, Charlie, the florist, said his throat was sore from trying to scream but not being able to do so in his dreams. The butcher two stalls down, who hadn’t cried once in his working life, quietly told Emily his dreams woke him in heaving sobs. People described the same feeling after the dream: a sickening rush up the spine that comes when you realise too late you’ve forgotten something essential. And everyone could smell the scent of apples.

That night, the townspeople again dreamt of being voiceless, powerless and afraid.

And so it went.

Night after night a blue-tinged figure wandered through people’s dreams, leaving them to wake at dawn, smelling nothing but apples; the air would be crisp and sweet like a Pink Lady one morning, and sour as a Granny Smith the next. After that first night of dreaming there were more traffic accidents the following day than the town’s yearly average. People started to notice the purple half-crescents of sleep deprivation under one another’s eyes. Restaurants and bars stayed open later. The local medical centre kept Valium and Xanax on backorder.

What Emily didn’t share was how her dreams were different to those of everyone else.

She didn’t wake with a mouth puckered by sorrow, or signs of trauma on her body. She didn’t suffer night terrors, or sit up with her lamp on to stave away the darkness. She didn’t pray for an end to her dreams. The truth was, she welcomed them. In her dreams, Emily remembered how it felt to be a girl, wildly, wholly, magically seen for the first time.

 

EVE

ON THE NIGHT of our sixteenth birthday, you asked me what it felt like to fall in love. Your eyes were big with curiosity as you clutched the book you were reading to your chest. You were never without a book. I was jealous of how smart you were, and I loved your love of stories, your earnestness, and how thoroughly you believed and trusted in every one I ever told you. Even when I was tempted to tease you, I could never bring myself to lie.

It feels a bit like you’ve caught the sun in your heart, Eenie, I’d said. Your eyes widened. It feels bright and beautiful and hot and painful all at once.

You started to ask me more but I was creeping out for the night, as I often did. As if you were something I needed to escape. As if sleeping at home in our shared bedroom with you wasn’t the most precious time in my life.

Where are you going? Your whisper was a plea.

To catch the sun, I’d said to you, grinning as I ran for the road where some of the boys were waiting for me in their cars.

I only wanted the attention of one. But all that time he never wanted me, Eenie. He wanted you. And I was too bewildered by jealousy to protect you.

I pretended to be the only one in town who didn’t know you were drunk on each other. Until you made sure I couldn’t hide from it any longer. The night you went with him to the bay, to the shack, you left me a note. I’ve caught the sun, Evie, you wrote. Please be happy for me, my beautiful sister.

 

EMILY

THE DREAM IS always the same: a girl walks along the edge of the bush gathering ripe native black apples in a wicker basket. Her mouth is filled with the delicate flavour of the jam she intends to make. She doesn’t see him sitting in his car on the dirt road as she approaches. She doesn’t see him until he’s rolling down the window, slow smile and pale eyes.

‘I’m not Eve,’ she states immediately.

‘I’m not waiting for Eve,’ he replies.

Her face grows hot. His gaze holds her eyes. She’s the first to look away. His eyes are too blue, too mesmerising.

‘Get in, Enid Rossetti.’ He grins. ‘Let’s get out of this shithole. I know a place down the coast that sells tacos and tequila shots for five bucks.’

A small smile dawns on her face.

There’s a rush of flutters and the dream jumps. Emily’s point of view shifts and she embodies a young man, looking at a girl, backlit by the sun, her face obscured by the light. She sways with chains of blueberry ash flowers threaded through her hair.

Emily looks down. In his hands the young man holds a black apple.

 

EVE

ONCE I’D LEARNT my way around a kitchen with Muddy, I got a job as an assistant in the bakery down the street. Your sweet tooth will become a curse if you’re not careful, Muddy had said to me one day, watching while I practised working with sugar decorations in her kitchen. I didn’t bother explaining why she was wrong, or the reason for my growing obsession with sugar: it was, I’d realised, the best way to make them eat your name.

 

EMILY

A WEEK AFTER the young woman sold her candy at the markets, Emily was picking up old library books for her second-hand table. She’d just gathered an armful and was turning to leave when she was brought to a standstill. Staring back at her from the front page of a yellowed, laminated newspaper pinned to the library’s ‘On This Day’ corkboard was the woman’s face. And finally, Emily recognised her: younger, brighter and sparkling with life.

‘Hard to believe it’s been seven years this week, isn’t it?’ The voice behind Emily was heavy with remorse. As she turned to the librarian who’d spoken, a sense of understanding sank into Emily: she could only nod and return her gaze to the photo of the young woman.

Once upon a time, her shy, sweet face had threatened to undo their town.

 

EVE

THE YEAR I lost you was the same year winter never came to the bay. The sky stayed white and hazy from heat for two seasons. The drought was so severe we stood in Mum’s garden and watched the leaves shrivel. The earth cracked, the tanks ran dry. Down at the bay, people said the ocean evaporated right in front of them. Others said the shallowest rockpools vanished while they watched, leaving lacy rings of salt behind on the cliffs. And, under the midday sun, a sickening cacophony of popping and hissing sounds filled the air as countless pipi shells washed up on shore, cracked open and exposed their centres to burn alive. One day at the beginning of June, when it should have been cold, the blueberry ash tree in our backyard continued to bloom with summer flowers. Not long after, I found Mum hacking at its branches with an axe.

In July, when the heat was still unrelenting, Mum shut up the house and kept the air-conditioning on day and night, pushing stale air and grief through all the rooms. Even when migratory birds kept dying after they flew into our closed windows in confusion, Mum wouldn’t allow the house to be thrown open. She took to running deep baths and locking herself in the bathroom for hours, or lying on the couch with a cloth over her eyes, a brown glass bottle lolling in her hand. One day she washed her hair, put on lipstick and a spray of perfume, and said she was ducking out for eggs and bread; we’d make French toast like the three of us used to and we’d drink tea from her wedding china. I waited for a week until I acknowledged she wasn’t coming back. It was then, both of you gone and before the neighbours rang social services, that I started diving into what was left of the rockpools at the bay. There were sea caves rumoured to be at the bottom. I craved their depths.

At first the brackish water frightened me, but as my limbs grew stronger with each stroke and my lungs expanded with each breath, I became bolder. Deeper and further down I went, kicking for where the turquoise waters I could see from the surface turned black. I was lured by the darkness at the bottom. I gathered some hefty stones for my pockets, just to help me stay under for longer. But on the day I intended to do my deepest dive yet, I plunged myself down into the water, opened my eyes and forgot how to swim.

In the salty gloom, you were there. The way I wanted to remember you.

Your skin was lustrous and your long hair fanned around you. Just as you were before him. Before, when we were still identical.

I gasped, sucking mouthfuls of dark seawater into my lungs, and kicked hard, upwards, through the surface, choking. The thick, salt air stripped my throat and my heart beat fast against my ribs. The memory of you had been so real. Panicked, I thrashed about, scrambling to get my grip on the rocks, until I noticed the bowerbird sitting on a dead branch, jutting over the sand. I stilled myself and splashed a few times in its direction but the bird didn’t startle. Goosebumps rushed over my skin.

Eenie? I wept your name.

Eenie, the bowerbird mimicked.

It held something in its beak, as if it were waiting for me. I got a toehold and climbed out of the rockpool to inch closer, but the bird dropped the object and swooped overhead, a dark star against the blazing pink sunset sky. Scrambling over the rocks, I found the black apple, looking like sweet treasure. Looking like candy.

A few weeks later, after the long drive in a social worker’s car from our home, I stood for the first time in Muddy’s kitchen.

Take that bitterness inside and melt it down. Add a tonne of sugar and make it into something irresistible.

 

EMILY

SHE DROVE FROM the library to the bay, parked and turned off her engine. Dusk softened the brazen summer sky. The beach was deserted. Emily glanced at the photocopied newspaper she’d dropped onto the seat beside her, at Enid Rossetti’s shy and smiling face in the grainy, yellowed photograph; at Eve Rossetti’s identical face, haggard and grief-stricken as she left the police station. Emily got out of the car and faced the soothing north-easterly.

She remembered seeing Eve around town after everything that had happened. Her eyes were hollow and her shoulders curled inwards. Emily had always wanted to go to her, to offer some kind of comfort, but she’d never found the courage to reach out. She was scared of upsetting the girl, upsetting someone who had suffered so much.

Everyone had known who they were, Eve and Enid, the striking Rossetti twins. Eve was gregarious, perceived as the more beautiful of the two; Enid, though physically identical, was quiet and watchful. Which confused everyone when she was the twin seen with Joe Jackson, captain of the high-school rugby team. Soon, Enid and Joe were inseparable, driving around town, walking along the bay, sitting on the boot of his car in the fast-food car park. Enid’s face had beamed like the sun as she sat in the crowd at his home games. Emily had overheard people remarking to each other Don’t you miss puppy love? as Joe and Enid walked by. But every time she saw them, Emily shivered. She could remember how it felt to be looked at the way Joe Jackson looked at Enid Rossetti – hungrily, intensely, possessively.

The news came like storm cells from the west: one morning at dawn, Enid had shown up at the police station, shaken, bleeding and bruised. She’d been accompanied by Eve. For the two weeks after she’d reported the sexual assault, no matter how often the police had asked for privacy in the investigation, it had been local headline news. Joe Jackson had been taken out of school for questioning, braced by lawyers his parents had brought down from the city. Details from the police report were leaked: they’d been drinking at the bay, she more than him. They’d gone to the derelict fisherman’s hut in the bush for privacy, but Enid changed her mind after they got there. When she started to yell, Joe Jackson had shoved a black apple in Enid’s mouth to silence her.

A misunderstanding, blown out of proportion.

These things aren’t black and white.

Storytelling runs in her family. Have you heard her mother after a few at the pub?

A young man with so much potential shouldn’t have to spend the rest of his life paying for a stupid mistake.

Emily’s throat had burned with all the things she couldn’t say when she overhead people talking. When she couldn’t hold them in any longer, driven to try to do something for Enid and Eve, to fight for what was right, Emily had tried talking to a few neighbours; she’d suggested a protest in front of the police station. Some had shut their doors in her face, others had looked at her like she was mad. When he’d gotten wind of her idea, Robert had told Emily not to get involved. Small towns have long memories, he’d said, standing over her. Remember that.

She walked along the bay, away from the sea, up towards the line where the bush met the sand. Emily’s heart began to race when she glimpsed the boughs of white-and-pink flowers reaching over the sagging, weathered roof. She reached into her pocket for her secateurs.

During the investigation, Emily remembered seeing the twins in town only once. Remembered how people had stopped and stared as Eve and Enid had walked into the corner shop; she’d been struck by how tightly the girls were clasping each other’s hands. Enid had kept her head down, while Eve jutted her chin, her eyes flashing yet fearful. The cold silence that fell over the shop seemed to make the girls shiver. A hiss of whispers rose from people huddled in the aisles: they stared, and turned their backs when the girls passed them by. Eve had tried to gather milk, bread and butter, and queue to pay, but she’d abandoned their basket at the check-out when Enid started to cry. The nerve, the clerk had muttered as they left, before turning with a bright smile to serve Emily.

When the investigation was over, Joe Jackson had gone back to school. Graduated with his class. Got recruited into the league. Enid Rossetti hung herself from the branches of the wild blueberry ash tree next to the fisherman’s hut on the bay. There had been a pile of black apples found on the ground beneath her.

 

EVE

IT TOOK ME six months to get them right, to roll enough sheets of boiled red toffee around and around each other, bending extra sheets of sugar to spell your name inside each candy. I used a paler food-colouring for the lettering, though no one would know as they ate the softer centres. But I knew. I knew that with every piece they had to swallow your name. They never made it right. But I could, Eenie. I could make them eat your story. Your dreams. All the horrors that haunted you when you were alive, when no one believed you.

It took me two days to drive back from my flat in the city. To go back there. To go home to you. I planned on stopping just outside of town the day before. Decided to camp by the bay.

As I drove towards the sea, the blur of shimmering blue on the side of the road looked like a small cairn of wet stones at first glance. I rubbed my eyes, blurry from the long drive, and refocused. The lame wing of a bowerbird waved in the wind, its opalescent feathers caught in the dying light. I pulled over. The bird struggled to lift its head. Its good wing flapped feebly against the ground.

The only things of yours I have are your books and your diaries. Night after night in my first few weeks at Muddy’s, I sat up in bed, tracing your handwritten words with my fingertips. Taking your thoughts into my mind, willing myself to find you in there.

Those moments are never enough. I wish for impossible things. I wish, I wish, I wish, Eenie.

The next morning, as I set off for the markets, the car smelled sweet from all the candy in their tins, warmed by the sun the day before. I envisioned the red fragrance filling my lungs like sugared smoke as I took deep breaths; the scent of apples would soon become synonymous with your name.

As I pulled in to the market car park, I replayed the morning in my mind. I’d woken to a feather-blue dawn and walked down to the sand, holding the skittish bundle over my heart. Overnight I’d melted down a few of the candies in the billy over my campfire and drip-fed the bowerbird the sugar water. Standing before sunrise, I unwrapped her carefully. She was hesitant at first but then stretched open her wings and leapt from my hands, out, up, into the blue.

I watched her fly towards the dark space of the new moon until she was the same size a nearby star. 

 

EMILY

THERE’S A REASON people didn’t openly talk about Eve Rossetti coming back to town and selling candies without speaking to anyone who ate them. It was the guilt and acceptance of their dreaming fate, the consequence of devouring pieces of a girl’s broken heart. That when it had mattered, they hadn’t believed.

Some things Emily knew to be true: leaving home by six in the morning meant she always got first pick of the car parks closest to the market ground. Her most reliable bestsellers were books that offered readers hope. More importantly, every time she looked into her back garden at Enid’s blueberry ash tree, growing from the cutting she’d taken at the bay, Emily was reminded how powerful courage is. The truest: it wasn’t ever too late to do the right thing. The faded foster-parenting brochure that had been on her fridge for years was first replaced with Emily’s eight-week training schedule. Then, government forms. Eventually, a photo of her and Beth, the week Beth moved in. Beth hated green beans, woke at 3 am with screaming nightmares and was impossible to communicate with. She smiled truly for the first time in Emily’s care when Emily set up an easel and paintbox for her by the window facing the bay.

These were things Emily was sure of, the things she counted on. But why her dreams were different, or how to stop waking every morning with an ache in her centre for a girl backlit by the sun, chains of blueberry ash flowers in her hair, she didn’t know. For the last eight years, ever since the day Eve came to the markets with her candies, Emily had regularly caught glimpses of a young girl’s profile by her display of fairytales. Hello Enid, Emily made sure to say, even though a salty aftertaste lingered in her mouth for hours every time she spoke her name.

Though Emily never told anyone, there had been a time last summer when she thought she’d seen Eve again. A pop-up market had come to town; a woman was setting up her table at a stall. Same long hair, same jittery sparrow gait as Eve when she upended her tins of ruby candies. But this woman’s eyes were clear and her skin was lustrous. She hummed, sometimes she almost smiled. Hello, she greeted people softly. And as she unpacked loaves of her own freshly baked bread, her hands hadn’t so much as trembled once.

Griffith Review