THE STRANGE CANDY
The bright circle of lamplight fell across shining plates heaped with Ma’s good bread, and crackling salt pork, and potatoes from the little garden browned in butter from Ellen, the Jersey cow.
“Here’s something to round out the supper, girls,” said Pa. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small, flat rectangle. Pa held it in the palm of his big, sun-browned hand for Ma, Laura and Carrie to see. Baby Grace was too young to care about surprises, and Mary, serene in her straight-backed boughten chair, was blind so she did not look.
“What is it, Pa?” Laura asked.
“Something from the dry good store in town. Johnson got a whole barrel of ‘em in by train just this morning. He says they’re come straight from Japan.”
“Oh, Pa!” exclaimed Laura
“Why, Charles, I declare!” Ma gasped, shaking her head in wonder.
“Where’s Japan, Pa?” Carrie asked, her eyes wide and shining. “Is it where the Indians live now?”
“No,” Pa said, shaking his head until his long whiskers swayed. “Japan is a whole different country, and it’s far, far away. Past the Big Slough and the very edge of the prairie. Well beyond Dakota Territory, that’s certain.”
Laura could scarcely imagine such a thing. The prairie was so vast, so full of clean, good-smelling grass that undulated gently in the springtime wind. It felt like the whole world, this great, swelling land of plenty that ran from the threshold of the little claim shanty Pa had built with his own two hands to the place where the majestic, green horizon curved softly to meet the radiant blue sky.
Laura reached out a finger to the strange object, then quickly withdrew her hand before she could touch it.
Pa’s blue eyes twinkled.
“It’s alright, Laura. Here, hold out your hand.”
Pa carefully placed the little rectangle in Laura’s hand. She held her breath.
“Oh, Pa! It’s so light,” she said.
“Laura, why don’t you ‘see’ it for Mary,” Ma reminded her gently.
Mary turned her face toward Laura, her clear eyes unseeing but beautiful. Mary was blind. She had lost her sight to a fever years ago, but she never complained. Laura thought she was very brave and wished she could be as patient as her sister.
“It is such a very small, pretty thing, Mary,” Laura began. “Barely bigger than two of Carrie’s fingers. It’s wrapped in a bright yellow paper that crackles like an old beech leaf, and there are sawtooth facings at each end, as if they’ve been cut with Ma’s pinking shears. There’s a little picture of slices of bread spread with preserves to the right, and to the left there’s a red, oblong circle with the words, ‘Nestle KitKat’ written in big, bold letters. And such queer writing beneath it! What can it be, Pa?”
“That’s their language, Half-Pint,” Pa replied.
“I declare, I’ve never seen such strange markings in all my days,” Ma said, folding her hands in her crisp calico apron.
“How funny!” Carrie laughed. “They look like the scratch marks the chickens make out in the yard.”
“Open it, Laura,” said Pa.
“Is there something inside, Charles?” Ma asked.
“Yes, there certainly is, by jingo!” Pa laughed, his blue eyes dancing.
Laura didn’t like to spoil the pretty yellow paper, which was as splendid and wholesome as the sun shining above the sweeping expanse of the prairie just beyond the sparkling, clean panes of glass that Pa had installed in the window frames with his own hands. Carefully, she tore the paper. Out peeked two creamy, brown sticks of candy. Laura’s nose pricked at the fragrant smell of chocolate.
Carrie sighed in delight.
“Oh, Pa! May we eat it?”
“Mary first,” Pa admonished.
Mary nibbled a bit of the candy, then Carrie, and then Laura. Even Grace had a taste, but she turned her face away, surprised by the sweetness of the little chocolate bar. Ma shook her head when Pa offered her a bite.
“Not for me, Charles. Mercy, I hate to think what foreign cooking might do to a body.”
Pa gave a shrug and placed the remainder of the chocolate back in the glossy wrapper.
“You know what they say, Caroline:
Candy is dandy
But liquor is quicker!”
“Why, Charles!” Ma exclaimed, shocked. “What a thing to say!”
“Such a strange flavor,” Mary said. “I wonder what it might be?”
Laura thought of the picture of bread spread with preserves, which was printed in bright ink on the strange candy wrapper. Perhaps the chocolate was flavored with preserves, like the delicious apple preserves that Ma made every fall when the family lived in the Big Woods of Wisconsin.
Laura loved apple preserving time. She remembered one day when she was a little girl, there came a crisp autumn morning after the first freeze of the season when Pa threw open the heavy door to the kitchen and called, “I’m off to the orchard, Caroline! There’s apples ready to drop, and I’m hanged if the bears are going to get ‘em.”
By noon, there were dozens of bushel baskets filled with rosy-cheeked apples stacked in the front yard. Ma took a big-bellied copper pot down from the cupboard and filled it with water from the well. She set it on the glowing cookstove to heat.
“Run and get my big butcher knife from the smokehouse, Mary,” she instructed. And away ran Mary, for she was not yet blind and was bigger than Laura, so she was trusted with knives and needles other glittering, tempting things that Laura was not allowed to touch.
Laura helped Ma drag the heavy bushel baskets into the snug, warm kitchen. When Mary returned with the butcher knife, Ma set to work peeling each apple carefully. Laura helped by handing them to her, one by one, and Mary dropped the peeled apples into the boiling water. Laura envied her because she was permitted to drop the apples into the water, but Laura was too small to do such a thing. Mary also was very beautiful, with blue eyes and golden curls, while Laura’s eyes and hair were brown as mud.
The apples bobbed and danced in the boiling water for three hours, and Ma stirred them constantly with a long-handled wooden spoon that Pa had carved for her one winter. Now and then, she tossed in a pinch of costly store-bought sugar. When she judged them done, she quickly ladled each apple into its own gleaming glass jar and topped them with scraps of old flannel that she had cut into neat squares. She tied them in place with lengths of string, then stepped back with a smile of satisfaction.
“Well! That ought to last us all winter and most of next spring, at least,” she said.
Laura wished there were apple trees on Pa’s claim in South Dakota. But there was nothing but the wide, rolling prairie and its sea of billowing grass.
No, the candy did not taste like Ma’s preserves. It tasted of chocolate and nothing more.
“What flavor is the candy, Pa?” asked Carrie.
“Try and guess,” Pa said, his blue eyes twinkling merrily.
Carrie thought a moment.
“Molasses,” she said hesitantly.
Pa shook his head.
“Maple sugar, like Mr. Edwards brought us for Christmas after walking 80 miles through a blizzard to bring us our gifts,” Mary guessed.
“Ah, good old Edwards! That’s the sort of neighbor a man’ll never forget,” Pa said. “But you’re wrong, Mary. It’s not maple sugar.”
“I dare say it’s flavored with some new-fangled Japanese concoction,” Ma judged.
“Right you are, Caroline. Can’t beat the Scots-Irish—you’re a wonder!” Pa said.
The candy did not taste like anything but chocolate. Laura opened her mouth to argue. She closed it quickly. She must not contradict Ma.
“The Japanese fellows who made this candy added a funny sort of red bean called an ‘azuki.’ The grow ‘em all over Japan. Johnson said they’re a bit like our baking beans.”
Carrie and Mary both nodded.
“Of course, that’s just what it tasted like!” Mary said.
“I like the taste of those beans, Pa,” Carrie said.
“What a peculiar thing to put in a candy,” Ma murmured, shaking her head.
Laura felt contrary and mean. She could not taste any beans, nor molasses, nor maple. But she did not dare say so.
“Well, I’d say this calls for a little music,” Pa declared, reaching up to take his fiddle-box down from the top shelf of the polished whatnot, which stood in the corner of the bare, little room.
At the sight of the familiar old fiddle, Laura forgot her crossness. Its graceful, curving body glowed in the warm lamplight. Pa settled the fiddle under his chin and took up the slender bow. He tuned the instrument carefully, then struck a note. It rang out with a pleasant, golden tone that made the humble claim shanty in the middle of the big, lonely prairie seem cozy and warm and safe.
Laura’s heart felt so full and happy as Pa’s fiddle sang along with his rich baritone. Mary’s sweet soprano joined Ma’s clear contralto, and together they sang:
Noyama mo sato mo
Kasumi ka kumo ka
Asahi ni niou