Crystal Zhu

The third time the sheep come, Tilly hides behind the countertops of her mother’s shop. She lines her eyes up against rows of chocolates and truffles and spun candies like a sniper in close range. She hears a bell jingle, the little golden bell she had picked out with her mother to put over the door, a light nice sound like sugar mist.

From the glass, Tilly’s able to see lot’s of things. Customer legs, shined boots, a small boy bending down to tie his shoes.

But the shop’s empty, almost. In front of her eyes: chocolates lined up straight, toy soldiers on a line. Beyond that: her mother’s boots, one-up one-down on the tilted cracked chairs and beside her one-down boot a shiny leather shoe rests.

Sweet, smooth talking, Tilly can hear. She plays with the sliding door of the countertop. She can’t see her mother’s face, or the face of the owner of the leather shoe.

“Stop that, Tilly.” 

Tilly stops. She keeps crouching, then reaches into the pocket of her yellow jacket and pulls out a candy sheep on a stick, a lolli-sheep. They look like misshapen keys, all a little different. She sucks on it.

When the sheep come – which is not the third time now, but is the third time in a slightly different way – Tilly would be able to see her mother’s face pretty like a Greek statue. Not like usually, when her eyes are dusted windowsills. When the sheep come, Tilly’s mother’s red gets redder, black gets blacker. She can make her mouth sweet as the candy she makes. 

But Tilly stays crouched, because the red and black reminds her of a scraped knee.

The candy sheep dissolves in Tilly’s mouth. It’s her favorite, especially tasting its sweet from behind this counter, where she is surrounded by sweet.

Now comes the part where her mother locks the doors. Tilly can close her eyes and almost see the way her mother’s shoes thump one-and-two and the little click as the clasp slips shut.

And now, and really, this is the least favorite part. She traces the black-and-white floor tiles with one hand and holds the lolli-sheep with the other, her knees against her chin. She tracks the outline of her two bare feet.

“Tilly.” Sweet, calm, mild. Bliss Burns is a confectionist. She is all of those things. She has wrinkled elbows and a Greek statue face and she rode on a train for twenty hours until she could see the light in the tunnel, a little candy sheep melting in her pocket, and maybe she knows what she wants.

Tilly doesn’t know any of that. She straightens up slowly, slowly as if unfolding from a suitcase, one hand grimed from touching the floor. 

“Why don’t you go read one of your books?”

Tilly scratches her chin. She looks sideways out at a wash of sunset splay on the confectionery floor. Two curtains, pastel blue, which Tilly also chose, dim the remaining light. Her mother, in full view now, has both arms on the table beside another pair of bigger, rounder arms. Her fingers are cotton candy tendrils. A little touch, here, there. Tilly licks her lollipop and sees a gold watch on Leather-Shoe-Owner’s wrist.

Tilly doesn’t want to read, but she does what her mother wants because her mother is sweet and calm and mild and nothing Bliss Burns does could ever be wrong. Not even the Touch, not the wrinkled ties or suits or gold watches. She’d seen her mother take out an opal necklace once, when she was supposed to be asleep. But Tilly was awake and they share a bedroom, because there are only two rooms above their shop, not counting the bathroom. The other room is storage.

“Have another one,” Bliss says, holding out a lolli-sheep when Tilly doesn’t move. She takes the sheep and retreats to the back of the shop, where rickety stairs lead up to their room. She pauses once, at the metal bar railing, at the single light lit below. She can pretend she is at the zoo, which was the first time she had ever seen the sheep.

It was the second time, in a slightly different way.

The sheep at the zoo, they were listless and damp and grazed on fake grass and stood on fake mountaintops. Maybe the zoo owner didn’t have enough money for other animals. Maybe he liked sheep.

Tilly continues up the stairs, pocketing ehr new lolli-sheep.

She already has a jacket full of them.

When the sheep come for the third time, or the string of third times, Tilly can’t quite sleep. But sleeping is different from dreaming. Or she isn’t dreaming.

She is thirsty so she gets out from her bed, bare feet on damp wooden planks, and tiptoes quietly and slow. Slow and quietly. Her mother is in bed now, the crumblings of a statue, the wisps of spinning sugar.

The trunk, Tilly knows where it is. Under that small bed, left behind a stack of old coats. Opal necklaces. Gold watches. 

Tilly takes a lolli-sheep from her pockets and pops it in her mouth. Two little black dots, melted in, are the eyes. They go the quickest when she eats them. She throws the remaining stick away and keeps the candy in her mouth.

Slow and quiet down the stairs. Quiet and slow till the bottom. A buzz is in her ears. A single light is lit. Leather Shoes must be gone by now, right? And slow and quiet, she starts to tremble.

Wet wool. Keyhole eyes. There are sheep, rows and seas of sheep, broken ears and hard hoofs. They stand, faced towards the stairs, like they are made of marzipan. Like they are statues.

The first time Tilly had ever seen a sheep, she was born. She never let go of it, her mother told her. Always stroked its felt ears, caressed its damp wool. The only thing Tilly needed on that long train ride when she was six. 

Sweet. Calm. Mild. Bitter. Sweet. Bittersweet. Bliss Burns is all of those things. 

But Tilly doesn’t know. She feels her lolli-sheep shrink, sugar on her tongue. The sheep in the shop make her forget her thirst. She can’t get her cup now, can she? She can hear the loud ticks of a clock going too fast.

Beyond the sheep, beyond the roiling cream backs, is a bulb lit above the single table. To the left, she can see the countertop. Marching chocolate toymen. Marzipan cats. Sitting at the table is Bliss Burns. Across from Tilly’s mother is a marble statue with her face. And the sheep are not looking at Tilly anymore. Their crossfire gazes are fixed on Tilly’s mother, velvet cheeks tinged with the small bulb light.

Tilly’s mother is stroking them, slow and quiet. Quiet and slow.

In one hand she has a toy sheep.

The silence is there and smudged and snapped through like chocolate bars by ticks. 

On her other hand is a gold watch.

Tick. Tock. 

Tilly can see the glimpse of an opal necklace. Diamond earrings, one, two. She takes a step back and two and three until one of her bare feet touches the third stair and she is behind the metal bar railing. The sheep don’t move.

Tilly can pretend now that she is at the zoo, but this time she can’t see the keyhole eyes, but she can see her mother’s face in its entirety. Red redder and black blacker. Bliss Burns holds out the toy sheep towards Tilly.

Sheep and candy and bliss. Tilly reaches into her pocket and buries her hand beneath the piles of lolli-sheep hidden. Smooth and sticky. She turns, walks back up the stairs, feeling each step cold and hard, leaving the single light, the statue, Bliss Burns and her keyhole eyes.

Bliss Burns, alone, holds out a trunk instead of a toy. Her face is bare. She can hear the gold watch inside.

Tick. Tock. 

Candy sheep, so sweet.

The first time, the very first time Tilly saw a sheep, the actual first time, Tilly was born. She fed on sparse milk and straw dolls and cramped cots. That very first time, Tilly had been outside, the sun hitting her toddler fluff, because her mother had told her to stay outside until the sheep left.

Shiny leather shoes outside the front door.

Inside, her mother hunted pearls in the storage room.

And then the trains. And the confectionery. Beautiful counters. Golden bells. Tilly Burns, behind the countertop, licking her lolli-sheep, which is no longer made of melted sugar but of caramel and cream and care. Bliss, her tongue as sweet as her confections.

Tilly stands beside a chocolate mixer, watching the spiral and sweep of rich sienna. No lolli-sheep today. Morning light is thin through their curtains and her mother works at the front, like she has been working since dawn, brow damp, hair curled. New trays of truffles and new trays of marzipan cats.

Red like the pale pink of dawn. Black like dust.

A single light is lit.

Tilly looks left, then right, then reaches into her pockets. One. Two. Three. She drops the candy sheep into the chocolate mixer and watches them become swallowed, turned, melted. Four. Five. Six. They are opals and pearls and gold watches. 

Her hands are sticky and her face is sticky and maybe it is damp as well. Click. A key. Slam. A door. The confectionery opens for the day. Her mother mutters something. She wonders if Leather Shoe will come back again. Her pockets are empty now. No more sweet behind the counters.

Tilly. Have another one.

And for a second, Tilly stands and sees her mother’s eyes like windows, lashes like curtains, pupils like keyholes. Chocolates and marzipans and sheep pulled down towards a tide that washed into a little confectionery at the end of a long train ride. She stops the mixer and pours it into a mold as her mother sits at a table, filling out forms and orders and calculating money.

Bliss Burns wouldn’t know who to blame when the chocolate tastes strange that day.