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After passing through the downtown area of Kamiyama City and following the road to the northeast, I reached a long, gentle slope. The feet on the pedals of my bicycle grew heavy, but I didn’t feel pain. The slope wasn’t so severe that I had to stand up and pedal, but I could feel my body temperature rising.
Sparse forests appeared on both sides of the road, and I could start seeing the lingering snow on the ground. The signs of human presence suddenly died out, as if some kind of catastrophe had just occurred. Actually, looking from a historical perspective, the hilly area on the northeastern side of Kamiyama City used to be an independent village of a different name. That’s what I heard from Satoshi, at least. Even now, that area is known by its local name, Jinde. The incline of the slope increased for a short while. Although the indications of spring were getting stronger, it was still freezing in the morning. It was so cold that I could see my ragged, white breath escaping into the atmosphere.
I noticed a shrine at the apex of the hill. I’ve taken this road a few times already. The first time was with Satoshi showing me the way. The next time was when all four members of the Classics Club celebrated the end of the Cultural Festival. But this is the first time I’ve noticed the shrine here. It’s probably because I’ve always walked on this road while there was some sort of disturbance, I suppose.
Today, I’m alone. Who would have thought that the Oreki Houtarou, who took up the self-appointed role as energy conserver, would wake up so early in the morning to cycle to a distant village? Thinking that this would have been impossible one year ago, I smiled bitterly. The deity in the shrine was Kshitigarbha1. Taking a break, I got off my bicycle, and with one hand, paid my respects to the bodhisattva.
After the Kshitigarbha shrine was a downhill slope.
I could see speckles of snow in the rice paddies. The rays of the morning sun shot through the chilly atmosphere.
Since this hill wasn’t so high, the view wasn’t so good. However, in the middle of the expansive plains, out of the sporadically distributed houses, I could see an estate surrounded by a white fence of an unusual style. A majestic pine tree was growing in the garden of that estate. That would be Chitanda’s house. You can tell that it’s a large house from here, but you wouldn’t know of the dumbfounding size of the reception hall and the infinite detail of the transom2 without going inside.
But I wasn’t going to Chitanda’s house today. I turned my head around.
After the Chitanda residence was a brook that partitioned the land into two banks. A small temple was built on the other side, as if eating into the mountain that couldn’t be merely described as having a fresh verdure. I couldn’t see the main building. I only thought it was probably there because of the flag in front.
That’s my destination. It’s called Mizunashi shrine, I think.
It was two days ago.
As I was languidly lying on the bed in my room and reading a thick paperback book that just wouldn’t end, the phone rang.
“Hello. Sorry for calling you during your break.”
It was Chitanda. By nature, she has a polite demeanor and docile tone, but when we talk face to face, I get influenced by her large eyes and our past experiences, and I get made to realize that she’s not just a trim person. However, I couldn’t see her face over the phone, so I thought that I had received a call from some lady.
“I wasn’t really taking a break.”
“Eh? Oreki-san, you have supplementary lessons?”
“No, that’s not it…”
My grades were certainly not the most outstanding in Kamiyama High School, but they weren’t that bad for me to receive a notice to attend extra lessons. On the other end of the line, Chitanda spoke calmly.
“It’s the spring holidays.”
That’s right. I was definitely taking a break from the spring holidays, without a care in the world.
“I apologize for being so sudden, but…”
Chitanda did seemed really apologetic about it, so I held my breath, wondering what this was all about.
“Do you have any plans for the day after tomorrow?”
I glanced at the calendar. There were no plans for the day after tomorrow, the day after that, and in fact, the whole spring holidays. If my sister was around, she would drag me along somewhere, but thankfully, she’s traveling in Nanki3, leaving me at home in peace.
“I see. That’s great.”
I could sense clear relief from the other side. Then, Chitanda continued.
“Erm, Oreki-san. I understand that this is sudden and troubling, but could you please help me hold an umbrella?”
While holding the receiver, I tilted my head without thinking.
If this was April last year, I would have seriously been troubled about whether “holding an umbrella” was some sort of slang. However, I’ve known Chitanda for about a year. Based on experience, I’ve learned that Chitanda tends to gloss over the explanation when asking for a favor.
“…Explain from the beginning.”
“From the beginning? Right. It all started from the postwar period…”
“Ah, I mean, explain from the middle, and in a way that I can understand.”
It seems that even Chitanda had realized her habits. With an embarrassed voice, she said,
“Sorry, I’m bad with explanations…”
I could hear a muttered “Erm” from Chitanda. With that, it seemed that she had organized her thoughts.
“Basically, a shrine near my house is celebrating a Doll Festival. There’s the emperor and empress, ministers and three court ladies. There used to be a five man ensemble, but because of the decrease in the number of children, it was removed.”
I have absolutely no idea why declining birth rates would cause an ensemble to be omitted, but more importantly, there was a fundamental contradiction. The Doll Festival should be in March, but it’s April now.
“Isn’t it one month late?”
“Ah, right, that is to match the lunisolar calendar.”
This statement made me want to ask something like “Is that so?” or “What about it?” Is a Doll Festival held one month late such a common phenomenon? Without caring about my questioning silence, Chitanda continued.
“The royal dolls have umbrella bearers, but… one person who has filled this role for many years suddenly dislocated his hand in an accident. I wouldn’t ask the impossible, but we are do not have enough helpers. I’ve asked around for suitable people in my area, but none of them could make it.
“The costume has a specific size, so not everyone can wear it. For example, it would be too large for Fukube-san, but I think that it will fit you perfectly.”
Chitanda stopped talking for a moment. Then, she continued, as if she had been waiting for my response.
“It will take less than an hour. Could you please help out?”
I realized that my face had turned bitter.
Basically, all I have to do is to hold an umbrella next to the tiered doll stand. But to be honest, it would be troublesome, and no matter how eloquent Chitanda was, there’s no doubt that I would feel embarrassed participating in a festival in an area I have no ties to.
“Not really interested.”
“Ah, I see…”
An awkward silence followed.
But now that I think about it, no one would care about the person holding the umbrella. Moreover, Chitanda knows about my energy saving principle, and yet she asked for my help. That means that she’s really troubled.
If I can quickly help Chitanda when she’s in a pinch, well, that’s not so bad.
“Ah, but it’s fine. I’ll go.”
“Eh? Is it really alright?”
Based on the sudden change in her speech pattern, it seems that Chitanda was really surprised. After a deep breath, her well-mannered words returned.
“Thank you very much. You’re a great help!”
“So, the day after tomorrow, I just have to stand next to the dolls, right?”
“Yes, and you will be walking with them. It may not be much, but there will be a gift for your efforts.”
Ah, I’ll be getting a gift too. This would be just like a simple part-time job, then.
I was just about satisfied with Chitanda’s explanation, when all of a sudden, I realized something. That can’t be right.
“Walking with the dolls, you say?”
“The dolls walk?”
She answered as if that was natural, but for some reason her voice became gradually softer. I was about to ask “Why would the dolls walk?”, when Chitanda spoke up, as if unable to bear it any longer.
“They may be dolls, but please stop saying ‘doll’ over and over. I’m also quite embarrassed.”
Something was off. Something was definitely off here. I thought for a while.
My job was just to hold an umbrella for a doll, but Chitanda said that the doll walks. Also, she felt shy upon hearing the word “doll”.
There was only one conclusion that could be drawn.
“Don’t tell me the doll is…”
“…Ah. Could it be that you do not know anything about it?”
Exactly as I had thought, huh.
After adjusting the receiver, Chitanda continued with a detailed explanation.
“Every year, following the lunisolar calendar, the Mizunashi Shrine celebrates the Doll Festival by having girls dress up as ‘Live Dolls’. The dolls form a procession and parade around the village. I thought that Mizunashi Shrine’s Live Doll Festival was quite famous, so I thought that you would know about it…
“Yes, I have played the position of Empress every year since the start of middle school… Fukube-san said that he would come over to take a look.”
But Satoshi had supplementary classes, so he just couldn’t make it for the procession. He called last night, and he spoke in a voice that seemed like he was stomping on the ground in regret.
“Listen, Houtarou. You’re holding an umbrella for Chitanda when she’s playing an empress. Come what may, never, ever, make a mistakeǃ”
I was more worried about what costume I would be put in, as the umbrella bearer behind the doll.
There was still some time before the arranged time, but I didn’t want to get lost on an unfamiliar road. I adjusted my trench coat, and pedaled all the way down the slope.
Looking at the scenery from up here, I could see that the village was surrounded by mountains on all four sides. There were a few buildings, and probably because now wasn’t the right season to plant anything, the fields contained only unmelted snow and some sparse leaves. I heard from Satoshi that lotus flowers would be grown after the rice crops had been harvested, and I laughed ambiguously, thinking that now would also be the time for Chitanda to grow4. Right now, I can’t tell if the leaves in the rice fields were actually lotus plants.
I pedaled along the side of the brook, which had trees growing on its banks. The trees’ leaves had fallen off in autumn last year, and the new buds hadn’t appeared yet. Despite having no interest in the beauties of nature, even I would know what kind of trees these were, since they were of a major variety. They were cherry blossoms. The apricot plants had already bloomed in the shopping street in town. I’d thought that these would have bloomed already.
Since plants aren’t industrially produced goods, they would occasionally have eccentricities in conduct. As I was moving upstream to cross the river, one cherry blossom tree with vibrant blossoms appeared before my very eyes. Not all the flowers had opened up, but while all the other trees were still in the reticence of winter, this one tree already had half of its blossoms. I guess it has something to do with exposure to sunlight. Seeing a solitary flowering tree sure was fascinating.
I stopped the bicycle. I was surprised by the wild bloom, but I wasn’t here to admire the flowers. From my pocket I retrieved a memo, which contained Chitanda’s instructions on how to get to Mizunashi Shrine.
“From the slope, go upstream along the brook and you will reach a cherry blossom blooming out of season. Cross Choukyuu Bridge ahead and follow the path.”
So I should cross the first bridge after the cherry blossom. I hurried on.
I could sense the festival atmosphere. From the banners with family crests hanging down in vestibules. From the cheers of the walking children. From the white flags in the distance. And most significantly, from myself being here riding my bicycle across the streets at nine in the morning when there was no school.
After rounding a curve, I finally saw a small bridge. That would be Choukyuu Bridge, I suppose. Matching its name5, it was an extremely old bridge. Its width was narrow, and it didn’t seem that cars could cross it.
My pedaling grew weaker.
Looking closer at the vicinity of the bridge, there was a standing notice board. Well, this is troubling. On the board were the words “No crossing”.
The bridge was apparently undergoing some construction. Reading the contents of the notice board, I found that the deteriorating bridge was being reconstructed. Indeed, the completely blackened wood bridge looked unreliable, and the bare floorboards, which hadn’t even been laid with asphalt, had probably remained there for a few generations.
Right now, the “No crossing” sign was standing, but it didn’t seem like there was any work being done on the bridge, so I could cross if I really wanted to. However, there was a small truck on the other side, and there were two men in yellow helmets and yellow-grey overalls laying down some equipment that looked like metallic scaffolding. They were probably construction workers from the public works company… It would be really stupid to cross on my own accord and anger the two men. Thankfully, the bridge was only a few meters long. I called out to the workers on the other side.
The worker that turned to look at me had a swarthy face that reminded me of summer even in this cold weather. He could have gotten the sunburn during his job, or perhaps he has an interest in skiing in winter. Fortunately, he didn’t seem to be a difficult person.
“Yeah, what is it?”
“Could I cross this bridge?”
“Sure, sure you can pass right now. Come along.”
He waved his hand. Following his words, I pushed my bicycle and crossed Choukyuu Bridge. The floorboards creaked and bent under my feet as I passed. It would certainly be better for this bridge to be rebuilt as soon as possible.
After crossing the bridge, the worker placed his hand on his hip and smiled.
“We’ll be starting work once another truck arrives, and you won’t be able to cross after that.”
That means that I would have to use another bridge downstream when I’m returning home. Well, I probably won’t get lost.
With my back to Choukyuu Bridge, I suddenly felt that something was strange… Since Chitanda lives in this Jinde area, she should be aware of the bridge’s reconstruction. It’s strange that she would tell me to cross this bridge. And it definitely wouldn’t be a prank.
Well, since I was able to pass in the end, I have no complaints. The shrine would be along the path, so I cycled further upstream.
Come to think of it, I got to see Chitanda in her kimono on New Year’s Day. At that time, it was for a shrine visit, and today would be for a festival. I don’t really believe in this sort of thing, but it’s a weird link of fate.
Like its impression when viewed from afar, Mizunashi Shrine was built near the side of the mountain range. It was totally different in scale compared to Arekusu Shrine, which I visited on New Year’s Day. The archway was small, the stone staircase narrow, and the main building didn’t seem to have a significant history; it was simply old. It’s impossible to compare it to Arekusu Shrine, which is also a famous sightseeing destination, but the caretakers of Mizunashi Shrine were trying. A reconstruction schedule was pasted in front of the shrine, and there was also a notice board with the large words “Living Doll procession starts at 11ː30”.
I’d never been inside a shrine office in my entire life, but this year, I’ve already done it twice. For some reason, I was a lot bolder during the second time. Naturally, it has nothing to do with the shrine offices of Arekusu Shrine and Mizunashi Shrine, but I supposed it’s like being able to pass through the curtains of a Nagoya Don restaurant confidently after having been to a Osaka Don restaurant. Would this be considered “Taking revenge on your Edo enemies in Nagasaki”? In any case, I certainly wouldn’t really feel dwarfed being in the middle of my elders wearing happi coats6.
The reception hall was a lot smaller compared to the one at Arekusu Shrine, but it was about twenty tatami mats in size. There, I approached a middle-aged man who behaved like a manager and asked him a question.
“So, what should I do?”
The procession would start at half past eleven, but we were supposed to assemble at half past nine. There was still some time before that, but I had nothing to do. The man, who had a red-tipped nosed, stared at me suspiciously.
“…And you are?”
He asked brusquely.
“My name is Oreki. I was asked to hold an umbrella.”
“Haven’t heard that name.”
“Well, I’m not one of the people here.”
I was stared at intently. Did the words get through? Having rushed here in the cold only to be treated like this, I was naturally sullen.
“Didn’t you hear from Chitanda? I was told that the person who usually holds the umbrella had an injury, and I was asked to replace him.”
Having confirmed my identity, the man’s attitude suddenly changed.
“Ahǃ So you’re Hazawa’s replacement. I see. Why did you come so early? The mens’ changing will be done soon, so it would have been better if you’d taken your time.”
…If I had known, I would have spared no effort to move as slowly as possible. The man brought me to a kerosene stove as I was feeling disheartened and crestfallen at the beginning of my work.
“I’ll take care of the arrangements. Until you’re needed, please stay warm.”
That’s great. Having gotten permission, I put on my white trench coat and became a living statue by the stove, one of my most proficient actions. If it would be alright for my changing to be done slowly, then Chitanda would be changing from nine thirty onwards, I suppose.
Besides me, every other person in the room had their own things to do, and they were all running around with urgency. There would usually be four to five people gathered in the room, but when the man in the happi coat stomped in noisily, a few lines would be exchanged, and people would take turns leaving and entering the room. For example,
“Oi, who’s in charge of the sake preparations?”
“That would be Nakatake-san. More importantly, what about later in the afternoon?”
“I left it to the women, but please confirm it.”
“Hanai-sanǃ There’s a call from a newspaper companyǃ”
“Newspaper? It wouldn’t be NHK, would it?”
“All they said was that they were from a newspaper company.”
From that exchange, I learned that the man with the red nose was called Hanai-san.
For a moment, I was infected by the frantic energies in the noisy room, and I started looking forward to the job. There were a few people who would occasionally look at me suspiciously, as if saying, “Who’s this guy not helping out? What’s he doing?”, but I wouldn’t be afraid as long as I didn’t make eye contact with them.
…I don’t always choose the path of the energy saver no matter the reason. However, this time, there were clear, proper reasons for me to refrain from moving an inch from the stove.
Firstly, I don’t know this place. I don’t know anything about the interpersonal relationships or the festival arrangements. No one asked me to do anything, and I think I would just be a burden if I tried to butt in.
Second. It’s warm in front of the stove.
Perhaps I had erased my existence by crouching, for most people passed by without looking at me. I was worried about going unnoticed until the Living Doll procession started, when the man from earlier, Hanai, stood up. He quickly asked,
“You’re holding the umbrella for Chitanda-san, right?”
“That’s what I heard.”
“I see. I’m telling you just in case, but there’s a mourning at Sono-san’s place, so the route will be changed.”
“Huh. That’s unfortunate.”
To that response, Hanai nodded lightly.
“It was a peaceful death. So, do you want to know the new route?”
“Then you’ll be fine if you always follow the person in front of you. The route will be somewhat shorter.”
Having said everything that he had to, Hanai stood up and left in a hurry. In any case, if I were to just follow Chitanda, there wouldn’t be any point in knowing of the change in route. If Hanai hadn’t told me about it, I would have just gone past without knowing of Sono’s misfortune. It seems that Sono had reached the end of the natural span of life, and I silently prayed for him or her.
The sound of heavy feet stomping around for preparation of the event wouldn’t stop.
“The number of clogs don’t add upǃ What happened to the women’s zori7?”
“Are you missing one or two?”
“Then it would be Chitanda-san’s. She brought her own.”
Would I be wearing a zori too? If that’s the case, would I have to wear a tabi8? What I’m wearing now is normal socks that’s tightly guarding my feet from the cold. That would be fine, right?
…Obviously not. It seemed that I had been swallowed by the frenzied atmosphere, for I simply couldn’t calm down. It’s all right, I just have to check with Chitanda. There’s nothing for me to care about.
But then again, I don’t think our communication will be flawless. I’m feeling uneasy.
As time passed, the number of people bursting into the room with weird expressions on their faces increased. A withered, old man with a head of white hair walked into the room and shouted in such a loud voice that I wondered where it came from.
“Nakatakeǃ What did you do about the sake?”
A man huddling in the corner stood up sluggishly. He was a thickly-built man who looked a little slow-witted, but had a lot of strength.
“I have ordered it. They will deliver it in the afternoon.”
“By afternoon, what time did they mean?”
“By one o’clock.”
A thunderous voice sounded. Even though I was on the other side of the room, my body shook in shock.
“The procession returns at twelve thirty, one o’clock is too lateǃ That’s why I told you to always leave a buffer, now hurry up and push it forwardǃ”
The person in charge of the sake didn’t seem to accept it, but he quickly answered, “I’ll do it now.” and left the room. The white-haired man now stared at the room, and I accidentally made eye contact with him. “Oh,” he muttered, and with that same austere face, rapidly moved over to where I was crouching. Bending his vigorous body a little, the old man spoke.
“Are you the person Chitanda-san asked to help?”
How did he manage to release so much intensity? I was thinking of saying “No, you’ve got the wrong person.” and making a run for it, but I can’t do that.
I couldn’t say anything else. My half-kneel had turned into a seiza9 without me realizing.
In response, the old man lowered his head.
“Sorry for making you come all the way to this place. We don’t have enough manpower, so we’ve been causing quite a bit of trouble for outsiders such as yourself. I hope you will forgive us.”
I reflexively removed my trench coat and stood up.
“Not at allǃ I’m sorry I can’t be of much use as an outsider. I’ll try my best not to get in the way. If there is anything you need of me, please don’t hesitate to ask.”
The elderly man raised his head, and his eyes narrowed.
“You’ve got your act together.”
…That’s the first time anyone has said that to me.
“Relax until your time comes,” he added, and with one more bow, he left the room. It somehow seems that I was officially allowed to relax.
However, that’s just not sold in the wholesale store10.
I heard this conversation from the men entering and leaving the room.
“Did you take care of Choukyuu Bridge?”
That was the red-nosed Hanai. The person who answered was one of the firmly built men in the happi coats, a relatively tall and gangly man.
“I asked Murai-sensei to take care of it.”
“You left it to Murai-san?”
Hanai’s words ended with a slightly bitter tone, which the tall man noticed.
“Is there a problem?”
“No, well, fine, I suppose. Did they delay the construction work?”
“He said it was perfectly fine, and that he would have construction stop on the day of the Doll Festival even if the completion date would be delayed.”
Since I was an outsider, it wasn’t my problem, and I could have just stayed silent. Why didn’t I do that? I have no idea myself. In any case, I moved my lips while in the position of warming my body by the stove.
“Construction has already started on Choukyuu Bridge.”
That line led to an unexpectedly enormous effect. Hanai and the man he was talking to, as well as the elderly man and the guy who was scolded regarding the sake, or in fact, everyone in the room turned to look at me in unison.
Even I knew that this was important. Hanai’s eyes looked like they would pop out of their sockets.
“What did you say?”
And then he was temporarily lost for words. He then yelled at the tall man.
“Shigeǃ Did you confirm the delay?”
The man called Shige was flustered.
“I emphasized it to Murai-senseiǃ But he told me he would do it, and we can’t contact the engineering firm from hereǃ”
This time his words were directed at me.
“Are you absolutely sure?”
He drew closer. Being talked to like that makes me uneasy.
“When I was coming over here, there was a ‘No crossing’ sign at the bridge. Since the workers were there, I asked if I could pass and was allowed to do so.”
“So they only placed the sign there?”
“Yes… but they said that they would start work after one more truck arrived.”
The room’s state of commotion, suddenly descended into a hush. Perhaps it came from the kitchen, but a shrill noise entered my ears.
The white-haired old man spoke.
“Sono-kun, take your truck there and check. Tanimoto, call Murai… no, call the Nakagawa Construction Agency.”
It seems that the tall man was called Tanimoto Shige. I’m not sure if it’s “Shigeru” or “Shigejirou”11, though. Accepting the proposal, Hanai nodded.
“Ah, please do that.”
And then he glared at me for some reason, as if I would be lynched if it was actually possible to cross Choukyuu Bridge.
…But my worries were all for naught. Ten minutes passed.
The man called Sono was a corpulent man whose happi coat looked like it was close to bursting. He looked out of breath when returning to the room, but he reported in a loud voice,
“It’s trueǃ Construction has startedǃ”
I could guess why that was so significant. The procession’s course probably included crossing the bridge.
“Shigeǃ It’s all your faultǃ”
Tanimoto also had something to say. While cowering from Hanai’s intensity, he spoke clearly.
“But something’s wrong here. Murai-sensei definitely called Nakagawa Construction Agency to stop work on the day of the festivalǃ”
“Apparently someone told them the day before yesterday that they could proceed on schedule.”
Sono stood in to help the sweating Tanimoto.
“It’s as Shige said. I just spoke with someone from the agency, and that’s exactly what they said.”
“Why did this happen…” I could hear someone sigh and mutter.
Since the atmosphere in the room had turned solemn, I somehow felt like running away. Should I raise an eyebrow? Unfortunately, my troubled face was unable to do that, even though I had nothing to worry about. All I could do was watch the development blankly.
The one who made the practical judgment was, once again, the white-haired old man.
“We shouldn’t care about the agency for now. There might have been some miscommunication along the way. What’s most important question now is what to do about the route.”
A round clock stood on the lintel without any form of civility, inconsiderately telling us that it would soon be half past ten.
The original route was exceedingly simple.
From the road in front of the shrine, we would go downstream along the river. After that, we were supposed to cross Choukyuu Bridge and change direction, moving upstream. In the vicinity of the shrine, there is another bridge called Kaya Bridge, and we were supposed to cross that and return to the shrine. That was all.
However, Choukyuu Bridge was currently unusable.
Receiving word of an emergency situation, the men who had dispersed for preparations earlier returned to the room. The spacious waiting room soon became a cramped meeting room. I could no longer sit by the stove blankly, so I removed my trench coat once again, and sat properly and silently at a corner of the room. Since it seemed that they were about to talk about things that an outsider like me wouldn’t have any relation to, I wanted to leave the room, but I sadly missed the timing.
Someone started the ball rolling.
“Is it possible to somehow stop the construction? The procession could cross the bridge in five minutes.”
If that was indeed possible, there wouldn’t be a need for a discussion. Hanai shook his head.
“Besides the procession, there will also be journalists and cameramen, and if anyone gets hurt while crossing the bridge, the construction agency would take the blame. Since they’ve started work already, we won’t ask them for the impossible. To prevent this situation, we had actually asked them to make the necessary arrangements, but…”
He looked around slightly as he spoke. Mr Tanimoto must be around here somewhere.
“There’s no helping it. How about we go past Choukyuu Bridge, then return?”
As Hanai spoke while rubbing his chin, angry voices flew out from all directions.
“We can’t do thatǃ”
“Go back the way we came?”
“That takes care of the east side, but what about the west, no dolls for them?”
I could vaguely grasp the situation. The east and west areas of the brook worked together for the festival, but having the procession move on only one side would definitely make some people furious.
Accepting the rebuttal, Hanai brought out another proposal.
“Then what about going past Choukyuu Bridge, returning, then getting to the west bank using Kaya Bridge, then going past Choukyuu Bridge again, and then going back?”
Going and returning twice, huh? That’s a way to do it, but…
This time, only one man openly gave his counter-argument. He wasn’t in the room earlier.
“That would make the time taken double. That also doubles the walking distance.”
“There’s nothing else we can do.”
“Is there really nothing else? This would throw our plans into disarray. Furthermore, the TV crew are coming, so we can’t do something embarrassing like that.”
Another man entered the conversation.
“Also, the dolls already have to exert quite a lot of physical energy. Doubling the distance would be terrible.”
What a brilliant opinionǃ I don’t know how heavy an umbrella would weigh, but I don’t want to walk double the distance.
Having been made to look like a bad guy, Hanai’s whole face became shaded with the color of his nose.
“You may say all that, but what in the world could we do? Anything else?”
“We could go all the way to Tooji Bridge.”
A young man said.
“If we cross Tooji Bridge and go back by Kaya Bridge, the distance wouldn’t be doubled, right?”
From the flow of the conversation, I presume that there is apparently another bridge further downstream from Choukyuu Bridge. Was there really another bridge when I walked along the river? Well, it was probably there, but I just don’t remember because it wasn’t of interest to me at that time.
However, when that idea was proposed, Hanai grimaced and did not say a word. It wasn’t just Hanai. There was some sort of awkward atmosphere in the room.
There was hardly any time before the start of the procession. Is there anyone who can break this stasisǃ
I’m not sure about the inactivity, but the silence was soon broken. I was wondering if someone accidentally opened the sliding door, when a plump middle-aged woman entered and spoke with a puzzled voice.
“Excuse me… Sorry for troubling you when you are busy, but is there someone called Oreki-san here?”
I straightened my knees and stood up.
“That would be me.”
The woman looked at me with an increasingly baffled expression. I have the feeling that I gave off the impression of an impolite person.
“What is it?”
“Ah… Chitanda-san’s daughter is looking for you. She wants you to come over.”
Were they waiting for the intruder to leave? I hurriedly left the room with the heavy atmosphere where everyone shut their mouth. I don’t know what business Chitanda has with me, but I sure was glad to be called out.
But I wasn’t allowed to look at Chitanda directly.
I was in a room which was about the size of the waiting room where the men were discussing the plan of action. Since there were more kerosene stoves, it was warmer here. A thick curtain-like cloth was hanging in the room, and I couldn’t see if there was anyone, or how many people there were, behind it. I felt that I shouldn’t even try to look. The room was suffused with the smell of kerosene, as well as the fragrance of cosmetics.
A quiet voice came from behind the sheet.
“Are you there, Oreki-san?”
That was Chitanda’s voice, I think. There’s no other voice like that.
But for a moment, I hesitated. Chitanda has often used this calm voice. I’ve heard it many times, but the voice coming from behind the cloth seemed more prim, and somewhat colder. This voice seemed to portray formal, ordered behavior.
“Sorry we have to talk like this. I’m being dressed right now.”
I had been thinking about the meaning of that sheet, and my guess was confirmed… this is the female changing room. I vaguely responded with an “Ah” and a “Oh”. The discomfort I felt here made the solemn meeting room earlier seem like a siesta room. I adjusted my trench coat, which had fallen off my shoulders.
“I’ve called you for only one reason. There has been some trouble, right?”
“Is it serious?”
The voice cut off for a short moment. Was Chitanda the only person behind the curtain? That shouldn’t be the case, right? The procession does not consist of only Chitanda, after all. I don’t know what they’re wearing, but for things like these, it’s usually impossible for one to wear them alone. I said nothing. After a while, Chitanda spoke up again.
“Then please tell me what happened. There isn’t much time left.”
That was true. If we were setting off at eleven thirty, I would have to change soon. I get the urgency, and I understand why Chitanda wants to deal with the situation. She called me instead of any other guy probably because I would be easier to talk to, with us being the same age.
But then again.
If we were talking without seeing each others’ faces, then it would be like our usual telephone calls, but this time, I somehow felt a little tongue-tied. Perhaps it was because I suddenly moved from a cold place to a warm one.
It’s alright. It’s not something you can’t talk about. I wet my tongue and began to talk.
“At Choukyuu Bridge…”
Construction has started.
That construction was initially arranged to be stopped.
But then the construction agency received word that it was fine to continue.
As a result, it became impossible to use Choukyuu Bridge, and the men started discussing the serious topic of how to change the route. I summarized the above things and said it much too hurriedly.
I didn’t even hear a cough from behind the sheet. It would have been good to hear some sounds of comprehension, too. I guess it’s possible that Chitanda was making those sounds, just that they couldn’t get past the thick cloth. I have no idea how she’s listening to my words. She could be sitting properly, listening to me as she has her hair combed, or perhaps she’s listening while doing a headstand… more importantly, is she even listening?
I suddenly felt a little unsure, so I stopped my speech and asked.
“Someone suggested going through Tooji Bridge, but… are you listening?”
She responded quickly.
“Yes, I am.”
Her reply wasn’t just curt, it was with a coldness I hadn’t experienced before. It was as if she was holding a fan to her mouth. I could imagine her leaning against an arm while stifling a yawn. I sighed, spoke of the awkward atmosphere among the men, and ended my explanation.
I closed my mouth, and the only thing I could hear in the room was the soft sound of kerosene combustion from the stoves.
…No, that’s not all.
I strained my ears and heard it. A suppressed, whispering voice. It sounded like someone was talking to someone else. Was Chitanda speaking? Or was it the other person here who hadn’t said a word to me before?
And then, the evaluation came.
“You summarized what was happening very well.”
But her next words were a little different from before. I felt her take a deep breath, and then she spoke in a louder voice.
“Murai-san is a member of the Kamiyama City Council. Delaying the completion date might be just a figure of speech, but it would be difficult for the Nakagawa Engineering Firm to refuse if negotiations went through Murai-san. That means that we should believe that the phone call telling them to continue work today was real.”
Her words were mixed with a feeling that I was used to hearing. It was a burning enthusiasm that always existed underneath that neat appearance. When I hear the name Chitanda, I would be reminded of the beginning. Since we first met in April last year, she’s gotten me, Satoshi and Ibara involved in many cases. She’s a person overflowing with curiosity.
That means that Chitanda’s holding no fan. She just wanted to find out who did this and why. She might even be as close to the hanging sheet as possible. Yawning would be unthinkable. There’s no doubt that her enormous eyes are filled with energy. That’s just Chitanda.
“Why would they…”
Behind the cloth, Chitanda became curious.
But that was all there was to it.
I had caught a glimpse of her excitement, but then it suddenly faded away, as if it hadn’t existed in the first place.
While I was sitting properly on the tatami, what Chitanda said to me was not, “I’m curious.” Instead, she said,
“But it’s fine. It seems that the problem is not that severe.”
There were two things I wanted to say, but I just couldn’t reply to that. The first was, “Is that all?”, but I naturally couldn’t say that. I cleared my throat, and asked,
“Is that so? It seems quite serious in the other room.”
“That might be the case, but there isn’t a lack of a solution. To put it simply, we are hesitant to go to the area further downstream for religious matters.”
She said this as if she was giving a lecture. I wasn’t really that interested, but I somehow felt like saying, “Could you give a more detailed explanation?”
She thought for a while.
“Oreki-san, could you please bring the men a message?”
She started with a voice tinged with fortitude.
“I’ll ask the other side’s priest myself. I’ll ask my father to contact the representatives personally, too. Please tell them that.”
I momentarily wondered if Chitanda’s bad habit was at work again. The message does seem a little short on words, after all. When Chitanda asks for help, she tends to gloss over the explanation, but if I point it out to her, she would carefully and properly supplement it.
But this time, even when I asked, “Is that all?”, all that came from the other side of the hanging sheet were a few cold, dry words.
“They should understand.”
And that’s all I told them.
I returned to the mens’ room, and conveyed the message while thinking that the room was really cold. I hadn’t even finished speaking when Hanai showed an openly relieved expression.
“Ah, then let’s leave it to her… Okay, people, we’ll be using Tooji Bridge.”
It seems that the route was decided while I was still trying to understand what was going on.
Now was a Sturm und Drang12 with no room for doubts. There was hardly any time left before the procession would start, after all.
My changing progressed at a frenetic pitch.
The spring sun spread its rays outside. The sweatshirt I had worn here was taken off, and of course, I couldn’t wear the trench coat either. On top of my underwear, I was made to wear a haori13 and something like a hakama14. This outfit had long enough sleeves, but the cuffs were too high. A third of my shin could be seen.
“This doesn’t really fit.”
I told the person who was helping me change. I was called because I would fit the size of clothes, but that isn’t the case. However, my helper, who seemed to have not yet reached twenty years of age, smiled and replied,
“That’s how it is.”
“Is that so?”
My feet are cold. This reminds me of the incident on New Year’s Day. It seems that when you add “Chitanda” and “traditional clothes”, the result would automatically become “cold”.
“It’s the best fit. If the cuffs were a little longer, I would be the one holding the umbrella.”
The man said. He was indeed a lot taller than me. His hair was dyed bright brown, and he looked like an unconstrained older brother. But if there was a young person here, Chitanda wouldn’t need to call me for help. The thought that we would have to depart soon turned into a nervousness I hadn’t felt before, and I grumbled a little.
“If it’s just the cuffs, it would have been better if you did it.”
The man shrugged while passing me a pair of black tabi.
“You don’t often get to see a procession like this, so I purposely came back home. If I were in it, I wouldn’t be able to watch.”
Well, it’s certainly true that I would mostly be watching Chitanda’s back.
I don’t really like these clothes, but I have a psychological opposition against wearing a tabi that someone else has used. However, I couldn’t resist this time. I put it on with great reluctance.
With that, I had finished wearing a black top, black trousers, and black socks. As I thought, my exposed shins do seem quite indecent.
“Right, next is this.”
He handed me some white overalls.
“Wear this, and I’ll tie it around your waist.”
Just as he said, he tied the cord around with a butterfly knot.
There was some rubber in the cuff, and it was tightened. The sleeves were quite loose, and I could see the black clothing underneath. There was a slit on the side from the waist to the knees, where I could see the pleats of the hakama. The front part of the overalls was flat and collarless, but around my neck, a black collar could be seen, forming a black and white layered costume.
I see, so even the packhorse can look good with clothes15, huh? I’m starting to look like someone related to the festival.
“Next, wear this on your head.”
The man passed me a black hat which looked like a cylinder crushed from the side. It’s a kind of eboshi16, I suppose.
I have a bad feeling about this. Everything before this has been fine. But if I put it on…
I tried it.
My whole body was reflected in the mirror. The man looked fixedly at my image and muttered,
“It doesn’t really suit you.”
My thoughts exactly.
Whether Oreki Houtarou looks good in traditional clothing or not, the festival was about to begin.
It seems that the problem with the bridge was fixed, but the start time was to be delayed. It was said that the procession would start fifteen minutes later than the original time.
I exited from the back door. It seems that the dolls were going to go out from the front door and gather in front of the shrine. That wouldn’t be my turn yet. It’s only when the gathered dolls line up when I nonchalantly join them, and go behind Chitanda.
Right. The preparations were perfect.
As I felt uncomfortable from wearing a tabi I wasn’t used to, I walked down the corridor of the shrine office and towards the exit. I wore the provided zori. I would be walking in these for an hour, or even longer since the route was changed. I loitered by the main entrance, but it wasn’t because I hurt myself by scraping on something. My footwear wasn’t very comfortable, but I think I can endure it.
As I exited the shrine office, I noticed a man whose happi coat looked as if it was falling off. The man, whom I think was called Sono, was holding the umbrella and waiting for me. It had purplish red paper stuck on it, and was larger than I had expected. It opened at a larger angle compared to a western-style umbrella, and looked like a T shape, so it would look really big. As I faltered, Sono spoke to encourage me.
“Hey, the Living Doll Festival isn’t one to strain yourself over. Try to make yourself at ease.”
“You’re saying that there are other festivals?”
“That’s right. There are quite a few other spring festivals.”
“Is that so? That must be really troublesome,” I thought as I accepted the umbrella… It may look big, but it’s not particularly heavy. It’s just slightly heavier than a cloth umbrella. I’ll be supporting this with both hands, so I should be able to easily hold out for an hour.
Fuu, I took a deep breath. Sono asked,
…Just a bit.
And then the living dolls gathered.
First was the emperor. He was also wearing an eboshi, but unlike mine, it had some sort decoration like a long tail behind. He was also completely in black, except of his white footwear, which were peeking out from under his costume. Naturally, his outfit was one suited for royalty, but what was interesting was his clothes. It was black, but it wasn’t absolutely black. Instead, a pattern of a subtle shade of black was stitched on it. I couldn’t see the exact pattern from far, but in a flash, I realized that it looked like stripes. The emperor was played by an aesthetically beautiful man with an imposing face.
That’s what I thought, but it was a huge mistake. I couldn’t believe my own eyes. That wasn’t a man, all the dolls were played by women. And I recognize that emperor’s face. Those sharp eyes, and that shallow chin line. She can’t fool me by just pushing her hair up. That was a second year from Kamiyama High School – Irisu Fuyumiǃ
My relationship with Irisu goes back to the Cultural Festival, where we helped each other. I don’t know much about her, but I at least know that Irisu’s family doesn’t stay around here. Was she also recruited as an outsider, like me? Irisu looked straight ahead, without even a hint of embarrassment. Since she didn’t look around, I wasn’t noticed.
Next was the empress.
So many people had gathered in front of the shrine that it made me wonder where they all came from. Perhaps some of them were visitors from outside Kamiyama City. It seems that the Living Doll Festival was an unexpectedly effective method of drawing tourists. No wonder Chitanda mentioned that it was “quite famous”.
The human crowd that blanketed the whole shrine grounds stirred, holding up their numerous cameras. If we weren’t in the middle of the blinding spring sun, we would have undoubtedly been treated to a never-ending slew of camera flashes. The emperor in a doll collection would be wearing black royal clothes, so that was what Irisu was wearing. What would the empress wear, then?
Chitanda came out wearing a twelve-layered kimono.
The outermost layer was orange. The next layers were peach, pale blue-green, a calm, elegant shade of yellow, and white. There was a ring pattern on the kimono, and a fan made of five colors of string had been gently placed on the doll’s hands. Chitanda stepped out into the grounds with her heavy make-up and downcast eyes. From just a few steps, I could tell that Chitanda had mastered the art of walking beautifully in those clothes.
“Ah”, I thought.
This isn’t good. This isn’t a good costume. Crap, I should never have come here.
That means that, in other words, what does it mean?
In other words…
I’ve always taken pride in my relative proficiency at the Japanese language.
Additionally, while I may not be absolutely logical at times, I’ve always believed that I was the type to use reason to organize my thoughts.
However, that day, on the grounds of Kamiyama City’s Mizunashi Shrine, on a spring day, at approximately 11ː45 AM, at the moment when I saw Chitanda walking in her twelve-layered kimono…
I have no good words to explain why I thought the word “crap”.
I’ve considered many reasons, but none of them can explain it well. If I don’t have to do it, don’t do it. If I have to do it, make it quick. This energy-saving principle was being fatally jeopardized. I have no way of explaining why I had that premonition.
I just kept earnestly thinking, “Crap, this isn’t good at all.”
Behind Chitanda’s kimono was a long filet17, with two women in traditional clothes holding it up so that it wouldn’t touch the ground. Long hair drooped down Chitanda’s back, tied into a bundle with golden paper. A person who doesn’t know Chitanda would probably think that the girl in the twelve-layered kimono has really long hair, but I know that Chitanda’s hair isn’t that long. That’s just a wig.
After that, the Ministers on the Left and Right appeared, along with the three court ladies. Sadly, I didn’t take a look at any of them.
I realized that I had to hold the purplish red umbrella for Chitanda, and I joined the gracefully advancing procession. The order was Irisu, Chitanda, the two women holding Chitanda’s filet, and then me.
As we walked along the narrow pathway, I was thinking about the filet being in the way… I couldn’t see Chitanda.
It seems that besides the tourists, there were quite a few news companies here too. I noticed a gigantic lens on a tripod being aimed at us. As we proceeded a little further, I saw some other cameras lying in wait. If some cause for applause transpired, it would probably be shown on TV, and I thought that I would get really nervous. However, when I was actually in front of the camera, that never happened. I hardly noticed anything different.
But I guess the reason for that would be that I’m just a part of the background, and not a main character.
The procession was longer than I had thought. A troupe of men wrapped in uniforms followed behind, playing their transverse flutes. I didn’t see them directly, but since I heard some “Don, don” sounds mixed in, I presume that there are a few people with taikos there, too.
We headed downhill on the path parallel to the river that I had cycled up. In the morning, it was freezing even with my trench coat, but now the calm light from the sun was pleasant. Even though it was just a small river, a breeze blew over its surface, and since it was only April, it was actually quite cold, although that definitely wasn’t an unpleasant thing.
Tourists were lined up in two rows on the left and right of the narrow path. I’ve never been seen by so many people like this in my life. But then again, I don’t think anyone would really look at the boy holding an umbrella at the back of the dolls. I looked forward for just a while.
We had passed the problematic Choukyuu Bridge and were heading to Tooji Bridge before I even knew it. I only realized it when the procession went over the water.
Suddenly, my vision was filled with pink, and I looked up.
Chitanda was walking under the flowering cherry blossom tree. We walked past half-opened and fully-opened flowers, but under the out of season flowers, Chitanda advanced silently with her twelve-layered kimono. The warm, gentle sunlight, the tiled room of and old house that happened to be built there by chance, the leftover snow on the rice fields, the transparent surface of the creek that had melted snow in it, and the murmuring of the stream. There was nothing unsightly about any of these things. At least, that’s what I felt.
However, all I could see of Chitanda, with her flowing hair and her filet that was being held up, was her back.
I can’t say that I hold any affinity to the curiousness that Chitanda repeatedly embraces. But this time, I thought, “So this is what Chitanda has always felt.” Right now, I wanted to see Chitanda’s expression. Now, in this place, if I could see her face-to-face with her rouged, downcast eyes, how would that be…
A voice called. Taken aback, I turned around.
I saw that Satoshi was in the audience.
I turned back to look in front, with a nonchalant expression on my face.
The sake was delivered late, but thanks to the altered route, it arrived just in time. On returning to the shrine, the procession was greeted with a hot meal and warmed sake. There were a few obstacles along the way, but it ended without any problems, and all that was left was the night festival. The afternoon meal was extremely calm and full of smiles.
Chitanda and the rest of the dolls did not take their lunch, and instead went to the prayer hall. They were cleansing their impurities, I think.
Dolls are, by nature, things that accept the sins of man. Something has to be done about the accumulated impurities. I don’t know when Mizunashi Shrine started the Living Doll Festival, but it has humans take on the role of dolls, so this is a pretty strange ritual. You could even call it dangerous if you consider the incantations involved. It’s definitely not meaningless for the living dolls to undergo cleansing immediately after returning.
The person who said all that was the one who knows all unnecessary pieces of information, Fukube Satoshi…… not. It was actually Ibara who gave that monologue. I had changed to my normal clothes, worn my trench coat, and was now eating mitarashi dango in a corner of the shrine grounds together with Ibara and Satoshi. I never knew that Ibara could give us so many details about the mystic practices, though.
Satoshi’s words, on the other hand, was of a different matter.
“That was miraculous, Houtarou.”
“The fact that you made it for the festival?”
“Ah, yeah, that’s also unbelievable. I never thought that the festival would be pushed back.”
It seems that he hopped onto his bicycle right after his remedial lessons ended, rushed here at full speed and caught up with the procession at the second half of Tooji Bridge. He thrust his hand into his linen drawstring bag and retrieved a disposable camera.
“My equipment was quite inferior, but it’s way better than not taking a picture at all. That was a one in ten thousand opportunity, so it was worthwhile using this thing. I was horrified at letting this chance go to waste, and if I hadn’t taken a photo, I would be stomping on the ground in disgust.”
“So did you take it?”
“It was a perfect shot, with the cherry blossom in it.”
I stayed silent. Satoshi grinned and added,
“Based on your type, you just can’t bear to say something like ‘Make me a copy for commemoration’s sake’, right? But don’t worry, I’ll give you one even if you don’t say it.”
“You didn’t suit your outfit at all.”
Ibara just had to say the line that didn’t need to be spoken.
In the end, I didn’t manage to see Chitanda at Mizunashi Shrine. I don’t know when the purification ritual ended, but the tourists evaporated after the festival ended, and Satoshi and Ibara didn’t feel like staying any longer. “Say hi to Chitanda for meǃ” Satoshi called as he retreated from the shrine.
As for me, not knowing how long I should act like an involved person for, I had lunch and proactively helped with the cleaning up. The men who weren’t free had left already but there were ten people who stayed until the end, so we swallowed the remaining fish and vegetables while having a lively conversation.
I only met Chitanda when the sun was leaning towards the west. I was passing by her house when I spotted Chitanda on her veranda, and she beckoned for me to come in.
I was waiting patiently at the guest room, but I left to go to the toilet. On the way back, we walked into each other.
“Ah, Oreki-san. I was just coming to greet you.”
The Chitanda who was smiling in front of me had removed her make-up. She was the usual Chitanda. I had never stared at her so fixedly before, but now I understood. This was the Chitanda that I was used to seeing. She had taken off her twelve-layered kimono and was now wearing a collared shirt and a skirt with a gentle color, which was very suitable as indoor clothes. She could appear in front of people in this.
While I was looking at her, Chitanda’s cheeks swelled.
“W-What is it?”
Chitanda sighed, and then shouted excitedly.
“Today was terribleǃ I had to control myself for so longǃ If I may say so, I think I did quite well just for today.”
“Ah, playing the doll?”
But that wasn’t it. Chitanda shook her head and took a step forward. The polished veranda floor creaked.
“That was not what I was controlling myself for. It was definitely…”
Chitanda put her hands on her chest, and spoke with her heart.
“About who called the Nakagawa Construction Agency. I’ve been curious for such a long timeǃ”
…So that was it.
“Oreki-san, you probably understood something in that room, but I just couldn’t ask. That was what I thought, but I felt that there was something on the tip of your tongue when you were talking behind the sheet.”
“No, that wasn’t it.”
“Then what were you about to say?”
I never thought that I would be asked about that.
“I thought about it a lotǃ Who would benefit the most if Choukyuu Bridge could not be passed? But I had a job to do today, so I couldn’t spend my time only thinking about it, but there was no one I could turn to…”
Her expression did not change much, but I could sense her regret. There was no hanging barrier on the veranda. As a result, Chitanda’s eyes, the representation of her curiosity, drew closer.
“Oreki-san, you were in the office the whole time. Did you notice anything?”
“Not at all,” was what I would like to say.
But I actually did notice something. Normally, I wouldn’t spare a thought about what happened with the bridge, but today, in view of the special incident, I thought that Chitanda would be interested. Therefore, I listened carefully to what everyone said.
Since she didn’t say “I’m curiousǃ” in that room, I thought it was over then. I never knew that I would be brought to Chitanda’s house in the evening.
I took half a step back and answered.
“Yeah… there were so many people today, though. Honestly, I don’t know all their names.”
“I know all of them, I think.”
“Do you think any of them as suspicious?”
I asked. Chitanda’s eyes, which had been blazing with curiosity up till now, opened wide in surprise.
“Eh? You’re asking me?”
She said while pointing at herself. Come to think of it, I’ve been seeing that action quite a lot lately. She tilted her head and thought for a while.
“…Yes, I do not have evidence, but there is in fact one person I think may have done it.”
“I can also only think of one person who knew everything from the beginning.”
Chitanda slipped out a chuckle.
“Then how about this? We write it out on something and show each other at the same time.”
Write it on something? There’s no pen or paper here.
But Chitanda wouldn’t suggest the impossible. She reached into a skirt pocket and retrieved a pen.
“I have a pen here.”
“Why would you have one?”
“I was writing out a name and address at the post office earlier. It should be able to write.”
“What do we write it on?”
Chitanda frowned worriedly for just a while, but she quickly came up with a solution.
“We could write it on our hands.”
…Well, I don’t mind, but don’t you have to attend a banquet later?
Chitanda removed the cap and drove the pen on her white hand without hesitation. Once she was done, she spun the pen around.
Since I had no choice, I wrote. My left hand felt ticklish, so I had to desperately suppress a weird laugh that was coming out. Because of that, I might have caused my face to contort with a weird expression.
We held our fists together. Since the storm shutter of the veranda was open, we could have been peeked at from outside. But it should be fine. The Chitanda family’s house was large, and had a high fence.
“On the count of two… One, twoǃ”
On Chitanda’s left hand was the words “Konari-san’s son”.
On mine was “Brown hair”.
Chitanda compared the two palms fixedly. She gave a small nod, indicating her satisfaction.
“Konari-san’s son has brown hair.”
“At first, I thought that the man called Sono was a little strange. I heard that his family was in mourning, but he still came to help for the festival.”
“Ah, Sono-san… his grandmother is almost a hundred.”
“But I thought that it wouldn’t be necessarily strange. If this area had two families called “Sono”, then there wouldn’t be a problem.”
“They are related to each other, but there are two Sono families. There are quite a few families with the same surname.”
“As I thought. Therefore, I excluded Sono. Next was Nakatake, who made preparations for the sake. He arranged for the sake to arrive at one, and angered the old man with the white hair. Since the procession couldn’t cross the bridge and had to take a detour, the sake arrived in time.
“However, going that far just to get the sake to arrive on time is way too foolish. Furthermore, the construction agency was called two days ago. It would be natural to simply think that the arrangements were done poorly.”
“Nakatake-san… He’s not a bad person.”
She wasn’t being very articulate here. I pressed on.
“My next suspects were the Nakagawa Construction Agency, city council member Murai, and Tanimoto, who negotiated with Murai. I was thinking that one of them was lying somewhere. Perhaps the engineering firm was trying to complete the project as soon as possible, so not wanting to lose a day, they started construction. I was also wondering if Murai told Tanimoto that it was possible to delay construction, but told the Nakagawa Construction Agency to come up with some sort of story and finish the work anyway. He might have his reasons.
“Only that the construction hadn’t started at all. I was able to pass normally this morning. That means that they only just started work. They probably had extra days set aside in case of rain, so they shouldn’t be in such a rush. The line of reasoning for the council member is also a little suspect.”
Chitanda breathed out slightly. I was thinking that something was off, when she spoke.
“That does seems a little doubtful.”
Yeah. I don’t even know any of the city council members.
“When everyone was throwing out ideas that wouldn’t work, there was one person who was working under the assumption that Choukyuu Bridge couldn’t be crossed.”
“Was that Konari-san’s son?”
“I didn’t know his name at that time.”
Since it would be strange for us to talk while standing up like this, we sat down by the veranda. The evening sun was dazzling. It would be amazing if there was a calico or some Japanese tea here.
“That guy said that he ‘purposely came back home’ to see a procession that you wouldn’t get to see often. Wasn’t that weird? You’ve been playing as a doll every year since middle school, right? That means that the festival is run every year. You certainly can’t call it frequent, but it’s strange to say that you don’t get to see it often.”
“…That does seem strange.”
Chitanda nodded solemnly. Looking at it her face from the side, it looked tinged with red. It was the projection of the evening sunlight. Returning my gaze to the sky, I continued.
“But this year, a procession that you don’t usually get to see happened.”
Chitanda stared in puzzlement.
I recalled Satoshi saying “It was miraculous.”
“There was a cherry blossom blooming out of season. Also, due to the reconstruction work, Choukyuu Bridge can’t be crossed. I don’t know where Konari has been, but if his family is still here, he would gain this information.
“And if the procession crossing Tooji Bridge, there would be the miraculous scene of ‘A doll procession passing under a cherry blossom’. That would be the procession you don’t get to see often. It’s a sight worth purposely coming back home for.”
Chitanda covered her mouth with her hand.
“Just for thatǃ”
Ishikawa Goemon18 danced at the back of my mind. What an amazing viewǃ The spring view is worth a thousand gold pieces, or so they say, but ’tis too little, too little19.
The combination of the cherry blossom, the dolls and Chitanda was able to take my breath away, even though I was only looking at it from the back. There was definitely value in carefully looking at that scene. You could even say that it was worth the deceit.
I wouldn’t say that out loud, though.
I turned the other way and asked Chitanda,
“Why do you think it was him?”
Chitanda cast her eyes down.
“Erm… I did say that I did not have any evidence from the start.”
“Yeah. It’s alright, I won’t laugh.”
Even so, Chitanda hesitated for quite a long time, then finally spoke.
“The only person I could think of who could calmly watch Murai-san lose face was Konari-san’s son.”
But then again, that would make Fukube Satoshi a prime suspect too.
To sum it up in a blackish, or rather, grey statement, I never intended to indict that Konari guy from the start. If I wanted to more accurately ascertain the truth of the matter, then it would be better to stay and investigate further.
But was there any meaning to this? There might have been some disturbance, after all. Then again, the festival ended without a hitch. We were happy with simply showing our palms to each other, and thankfully, Chitanda was also fine with this, and actually seemed satisfied.
As the sun became obscured, the atmosphere became even colder. But before I could say “It’s cold, let’s go back in”, Chitanda spoke out first.
“Oreki-san, in that room, I said that I would contact the other side’s priest.”
I nodded. Chitanda would contact the chief priest, while Chitanda’s father would contact with the representatives. That was what I conveyed to the men, and in an instant, the chaos that came with the unavailability of Choukyuu Bridge was resolved like magic.
“This might seem boring, but please listen.”
While this isn’t rare for Satoshi, I’ve never heard Chitanda give a preface like that. With this, I was unable to complain about the cold.
Chitanda’s eyes looked beyond her house and the wall surrounding the garden, concentrating on the mountain range around the village draped in evening light.
“Thanks to advancements in land improvement, it might not look like it, but in the past, this wetland was divided into two sectors. The area around Choukyuu Bridge used to be a marshland, and north of that was our village, and to the south was another village. But now, they have combined, and the entire area is known as Jinde in Kamiyama City.”
Not saying a word or even swallowing, I simply listened.
“Our village had Minazushi Shrine, while the southern village had Sakou Shrine. Disputes over land and water do not occur now, but entering the other side for religious matters is like intruding into others’ territory, and would cause both sides to be uncomfortable.
“There were special circumstances this time, so I think the parishioners at Sakou Shrine would understand. Hanai-san and the men know this, but even so, entering without prior warning could cause conflict between both sides. They wanted to inform the people at Sakou Shrine, but there was no one who could act as a channel for that.
“I said that the problem was not that severe, right? After I said that I would contact the priest of Sakou Shrine, everyone relaxed because they knew that we would probably be able to cross over to the southern side.”
I was honestly quite interested.
“Satoshi calls it the prestigious clans.”
But Chitanda slightly raised her voice.
“Is that so?”
“Isn’t this a small world? All I did was resolve an issue between two villages in the northern region of Kamiyama City, or to use its colloquial name, Jinde. Oreki-san, I do not think that it is an insignificant act, but I cannot think of it as something major.”
The sun had reached the tip of the mountain, and the surrounding areas bathed in evening sun started turning dark.
“Konari-san’s son hopes to become a photographer. He’s attending a technical school in Osaka just for that. That’s why I can agree to your theory about him really wanting to see a rare scene. If so, he didn’t just watch, but probably took some photographs too. That matter aside, I think that I will go to university after graduating from high school.
“…While Konari-san’s son might be different, I will return here. No matter which route I take, my final destination will always be here. In this place.”
And then Chitanda put on a smile.
“Oreki-san. What did you do about the humanity-science selection?”
Being suddenly asked about a “humanity-science selection”, I couldn’t understand what it was for a while. I realized that it was the choice between the humanities and the sciences for first year students moving up to the second year, and I finally answered.
“Ah, I went with the humanities.”
“Out of the four science subjects, my favorite is chemistry, and out of the four humanities subjects, my favorite is Japanese history. I prefer Japanese history to chemistry, so I went with humanities.”
With a hand covering her mouth, Chitanda laughed.
“What about you?”
“…I chose the sciences.”
Chitanda’s grades were in the top five in our year. She didn’t say so herself, and the rankings weren’t publicly released, so that’s just an estimation on my part. Anyway, someone like her would have a wide range of career choices.
But Chitanda wasn’t thinking about that.
“I’m not reluctant or sad to return here. I would like to fulfill my role as daughter of the Chitanda family, which is in a position of leadership in the northern area of Jinde. I have thought about how to do that in high school.
“The first method would be to find ways to produce crops with greater value, so everyone would have plenty to eat.
“Another way would be to use economic strategies to increase the efficiency of production, so everyone can avoid falling in the red.
“In the end, I have decided to pursue the former. That was why I chose the sciences.”
While I was staying silent, Chitanda asked me another question.
“Do you know the biggest reason that made me decide on that?”
I said, when I thought of something.
“Just that the latter doesn’t really seem to suit you.”
Chitanda nodded slightly.
“That’s right… To put it directly, it was that problem at the Cultural Festival when we were trying to sell our anthologies. I understood that I caused a lot of trouble for Oreki-san. That made me realize that I’m probably not cut out for managing a company.”
Yeah, that’s what I think too.
While we were sitting on the veranda, Chitanda extended her hands to the heavens. The sky was almost dark already, and I could see a few stars.
“Please take a look, Oreki-san. This is my place. All that’s here is water and soil. The people are growing old and tired. The mountains are regularly afforested, but what do you think of its value? I do not think that this place is the most beautiful. Nor is it full of potential. But then…”
She put down her arms and looked down.
“I wanted you to see it, Oreki-san.”
At that time, I gained an answer to a doubt I had been holding.
I wanted to say thisː “By the way, about the business strategy that you gave up on, how about I take care of that for you?”
But what did I do? I thought that I should say it, but in fact, I didn’t feel like I could say it at all.
This was the first time I felt like this. This first experience became an important key to a question I couldn’t solve before.
Now I knew.
Why Fukube Satoshi broke Ibara’s chocolate.
This had to be the reason.
It was probably the same reason why I did not say what I wanted to, and said a different line instead, right here at the Chitanda family residence, right now as dusk approached.
With feigned nonchalance, I spoke.
“It’s getting pretty cold.”
Chitanda’s eyes widened a little in surprise. Then she gave a gentle smile and slowly shook her head.
“No, it’s springǃ”
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- The bodhisattva who looks over children, travelers and the underworld.
- An architectural detail found above doors.
- A place in the southern region of Honshu.
- Houtarou compares Chitanda to a lotus flower in The Ghost, When Examined
- Chou(長) means long and Kyuu (久) means old.
- Loose informal Japanese coats usually worn during festivals.
- Flat, thonged Japanese sandals.
- Socks with a separation between the big toe and other toes.
- Both knees on the ground, with one’s legs underneath the thighs and buttocks resting on the heels. The seiza is considered the polite way to sit in Japan.
- Believe it or not, that’s an actual Japanese proverb. A similar idiom would be “Roast geese don’t come flying into your mouth”, meaning that things don’t work so well in the real world.
- Houtarou is wondering about how to write Shige in Kanji. For those interested, Shige is written as 茂 and 重 respectively
- Usually translated as “Storm and stress”, refers to a period of agitation in this context.
- Japanese formal coat.
- Loose trousers with pleats at the front.
- A similar idiom would be “Apparel makes the man”.
- Translated literally, it would be called a Crow-hat. It’s a black-lacquered hat that used to be worn by court nobles.
- A kind of lace with a square mesh.
- A Japanese Robin Hood who tried and failed to assassinate Totoyomi Hideyoshi.
- A quote from Kinmon Gosan no Kiri, a play about Ishikawa Goemon.
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