Buckwheat flour veils the hands of the black woman in the window. She draws the attention of crowds who leave fingerprints upon her reflection. Gaze as her hands form cylinder towers she destroys with her fists. Flattens and forms dough layers that remind them of the blankets they pile and stow in their closets. When her brown eyes rise from her creations, they wonder if she sees them or herself in glass. They wonder where she came from, some even feel the question crawl from their minds to the back of their throats. But her eyes drift back to her work, to her cutlery and boiling water shrouding her dark form in a steam cloak. Besides, who are they to disturb her.
And who are they to ruin the stories they tell with the trivialities of reality.
The children swarm around her window, a colony of murmurs dressed in uniform. At night, while their parents tuck them in, kiss their cheeks and foreheads, the children tell them about the ghost that haunts the Soba shop they pass on their way to school. Their parents never believe them, such talk will induce nightmares, and the parents force their children to swallow these stories before turning off their lights. Instead, the children confide in each other. The sound of the woman’s Soba kiri against her wooden cutting board reminds them of the woodpecker nibbling at the tree they dare each other to climb while their teacher’s back is turned. Many of the children follow strands of steam that ascend from bursting bubbles, remember the scent of the cigarettes their teacher smokes, the ones that carry the scents of their parents.
The teenagers avoid pressing their palms against her glass, believing the Soba woman laces a bit of herself within every noodle, so every customer walks away with a piece of her. After all, she is a creature of vengeance.
The girls are in love with the idea of heartbreak, envision the woman’s rage captured in every bubble that, when the water boils, you can hear her wrath like the long shrieks of a night wind that steals hats, newspapers, and unwanted scraps in its wisps. When it pours, the teenage girls tilt their heads back, open their mouths, and drink her tears.
The teenage boys think she is a woman of fire, her rage swells in the broth of her victims. Stirs in her customers’ stomachs until their bodies burst into flame, beacons summoning her. Through pursed lips she devours their souls the same way they slurped the noodles she slices. She emerges from their homes covered in ash and emits a warmth that reminds anyone who touches her window of the soups their mother’s made when they were sick. This is how she summons her victims.
Why else would a woman, surrounded by heat and steam, not sweat unless she were made of fire.
The tourists learn the existence of ghosts from their guide, some bound to the place where they died. They assume this is why the woman wears a mask. To hide her rotten teeth, silver poured into the pits of un-manicured bone, her punishment for eating the noodles she cooks. The tourists wonder the secrets she’d tell if only her lips could part. If the Soba woman is capable of a smile. They tell jokes, make faces, and perform plays, but still the woman refuses to smile. They decide her mask also hides the red thread that binds her lips together. Her cause of death: suffocation on the words she could no longer release. When the guide tells them her mask is to ensure the woman’s breath does not touch the dough she rolls and molds and folds, the tourists take her picture and move on.
The owner’s wife smiles at the stories she hears from the entrance of the Sunaba. Her ghost, who smells of sesame oil and soy, drifts into the night after work hours, abandoning the owner’s wife to deal with the memories that haunt her. The owner’s wife leaves her husband to his counting, goes to their room, and closes the door. She watches her little ghost become a woman in the moonlight from her bedroom window, wonders where such beauty hides during the day. On the windowsill, the owner’s wife keeps a rock. The name of the daughter she lost somewhere between a push she wasn’t ready for and a breath her baby never took, written so many years ago by her husband in their daughter’s blood. The owner’s wife traces the letters that form her baby’s name with each step her little ghost takes away from her. Feels the weight of stone in her palm increase in the years she sees reflected in the black Soba woman. Years her daughter will never reach, her eyes forever unopened.
The Rickshaw driver wipes sweat from his forehead, whistles the songs his grandfather taught him while his small body balanced on the back of a bicycle. He doesn’t know a life without balance and wheels, hauling the weight of customers, back bent, a ghost who slips between cars. This is why he waits for her, though he’s never prepared for her silence. He smiles, traces her face, steps closer until their foreheads touch. Anything to know she stands in front of him. The woman emits a heat that the Rickshaw driver forces himself to withstand because of her eyes, wavering in the water she holds, swollen, and carrying every shade of brown in their irises. Sometimes, he is unsure if the same woman meets him at night. Sometimes, her hands are stained in the remnants of flour, sweat beads along her hairline but never falls. A woman who moves without sound but can be felt. The Rickshaw driver loves what this woman might be. The Rickshaw driver fears what this woman might become, should he approach her window and listen to the stories the people tell.
—K.B. Carle (from Black Warrior Review)