Part 1 – The Mask and the Road Sign
Tuesday – April 23, 1991 (Heisei 3)
There’s a certain phrase: “Those with sated appetites know civility.” Of course, there’s another that goes hand-in-hand: “Poverty dulls the wit.” In other words, the act itself of becoming civil actually comes second to discarding the oft cited tenet of the saintly lifestyle: to never give in to temptation and gluttony. One should instead lavishly gorge himself. Thus, it goes without saying that if an impious man fails to catch for himself a rabbit within arm’s reach, it is truly cruel to request anything of him other than to put more force behind his spear.
Of course, that’s not to say we should completely dismiss that which comes second. Drawing forth from another well-known saying, “man shall not live by bread alone.” All of these maxims are relics inherited from those who lived scattered among the ages of the past—all hopelessly face-to-face with situations of unimaginable variety. These lessons are quite simple in their construction, and it is this very simplicity that leads to easy acceptance, ultimately paving the way for their widespread use today.
Now then, as I personally muse upon this topic, I find that a serious problem arises from within these suppositions. “What is it?” you may ask. To that I respond that this cannot be considered an issue unrelated to the basic concept of happiness. From the moment we are born, do those with sated appetites seek civility through further satiation? Do they completely renounce said satiation? Ultimately, this question in itself is already birthed from an unnatural, absurd premise. I once read a short science fiction novel that depicted a world in which all needs were satisfied, and its inhabitants, bereft of things to do, as a result become enamored with suicide. In the end, the malady of extravagance is undeniably a malady.
At the time, she told me to talk about something, so this was what ended up coming out of my mouth. Of course, I didn’t honestly think she was paying any attention and, as if on cue, she—the girl I called Sendou—disinterestedly responded with a single word.
It was pretty typical of her, so I didn’t feel particularly annoyed.
Her hair was cut evenly, in a style rarely seen these days, and it rested on her gray school blazer. It frequently attracted many stares, and her friends often told her that she should get it cut. According to Tachiarai herself, though: “Ever since I was a wide-eyed kindergartner, I’ve always admired long, flowing black hair. If I were to cut it now, after all the effort I put into growing it, I’m sure it would come back as a ghost to haunt me…” or something like that. She took care of her hair with painstaking patience, so in reality, it already was the flowing ideal for which she strove. She was slim, perhaps to the extent that it stood out, and her features were pensive and stern, containing traces of sharp ferocity. Yet, even after taking all of this into account, she was a figure that stood out among everyone else; her looks and character inspired feelings of inadequacy in those beneath her. She was tall, sure, but still slightly shorter than I—who had an average height for boys my age. It wasn’t like she sought isolation, but there was something about her near-supernatural disposition that made guys crazy about her, and even that mania was dwarfed by how much the girls revered her. And yet, here I was, as average as they come, having a relaxed conversation with her.
Even though April was coming to an end, the cold had not yet receded. The rest of the weather paid no attention to this, and the spring showers still rained down upon us in full force. Today in particular was freezing. It wasn’t pouring buckets, but it didn’t look like it was going to stop anytime soon; everyone beneath it held up their open umbrellas. Mine was relatively simple and plain, and Tachiarai’s was an unsettling crimson. Looking up at the wide street in front of me, a myriad of umbrellas dizzied me with their wide array of colors and designs. Beneath them were monotone blazer-clad carriers: students of our school, Fujimurasaki High School.
At that moment, a girl holding a checkered blue umbrella ran past us at light pace. At about two or three strides ahead of us, she looked over her shoulder and said, “Goodbye, Tachiarai-senpai!” and lowered her head in a small nod.
Tachiarai responded with a small wave. She wore a charming smile as she did it, but as the girl disappeared from sight, her expression followed suit as she muttered, “I guess she didn’t listen to me.”
Although Tachiarai was her real name, calling her as such always put her into a foul mood for some reason. I was the one who gave her the nickname Sendou. Sometime at the start of our freshman year, I watched her drowsily nod off at her own desk—maybe during a lesson or between classes—without a care in the world. It almost looked like she was peacefully rowing a boat as her head bobbed up and down, so I teasingly called her “Ms. Ferryman”. 1 Tachiarai became surprisingly fond of the name, and we ended up talking more and more as time passed. I say “we talked more and more,” but I was the one doing most of the talking. I figured it couldn’t have been too boring for her considering she had yet to complain about it in two years we had known each other. In fact, there had even been times when Tachiarai herself mentioned a thing or two about life’s esotericisms. I always looked forward to those moments, personally.
A red traffic signal blocked the street in front of us; the students in their school uniforms started to pile up on the sidewalk around us. They were all in our grade or lower. When becoming a senior, one is plagued by the constant reminders of the life-changing tests for which he must prepare, but for me—this early in the year—the looming fear had not yet taken hold. As we stood in front of the crowded pedestrian crossing, Sendou’s crimson umbrella hit the dark green umbrella of the student next to her, and the scattered water droplets hit my uniform’s collar. Tachiarai looked at me—or perhaps past me—as I flicked the droplets off. When the light turned green, she asked, “Want to use the sturdy bridge instead?”
She was probably saying that we could avoid the large amount of students if we took a different route than usual. I didn’t necessarily mind the crowd, but I wordlessly agreed anyways.
We turned onto a small street branching out from the main road, and the crowd around us thinned significantly. Eventually, we were the only two students in the area. The two-way street, devoid of lane markings, was lined by rows of houses on each side. Drops of water that had accumulated along their clotheslines fell and beat against the top of my umbrella. The wind was unbearably cold. To think the cherry blossoms should be blooming any day now—what strange, annoying weather. Tachiarai hadn’t asked me to continue where I left off, so I stayed silent as we walked. This kind of thing happened every now and then when it was just the two of us, so there was nothing awkward about it. Occasionally, a car would pass us by on the drenched road, spraying water in its wake. Each time, it would hit my pants and Tachiarai’s socks.
As you might guess, Fujimurasaki High School was located in Fujimurasaki City.
It supposedly had a population of 100,000, but in reality, it felt like there were a bit more than that. The area the city was in was considered the heart of the region—the hub for everything cultural, financial, and political. As a result, though, it was crowded. It didn’t border the coast, and the northern portion was lined with sprawling mountains. It was originally a foresting town, but that business eventually declined—as is wont to happen—and now its primary focus was tourism. The immense prosperity that this industry brought spread all throughout the city. I hear that they may even clear-cut the mountainous region to the north to make way for new golf courses.
A river called the Atotsu ran directly through the center of the city and largely served as a natural boundary—the north side being the old town and the south side being the new town. There were buildings in the old town that were constructed earlier in the century, and they functioned as the lifeline of tourism in Fujimurasaki City. This area was located in a region that was overlooked during the Second World War; we were fortunate to avoid the fires of war started that would’ve scorched the city entirely. The older districts were safely preserved as a direct result.
A scooter sped from out a narrow alleyway. Both of us stopped simultaneously to let it pass.
Tachiarai suddenly started. “What you were saying earlier…”
“What? Oh, yeah.”
She continued to face forward as she replied: “I get where you’re coming from—you might be right. At least, I can’t say your point is completely farfetched. I don’t think you can necessarily lump everything together, but it’s still an interesting idea.”
“Why, thank you.”
“But I don’t want to accept it.”
“I’m saying it doesn’t sit well with me.”
She didn’t explain any further. It felt like everything she said was always one part shy of a complete thought. That much I already knew well. I ended the conversation as we continued walking along.
“Is that so? Well, feel free to ignore it then.”
I started to hear the low growl of the flowing river mixed with the sound of the rain. Fujimurasaki High School was not located in the old town or in the new town, but instead in the agricultural region along the city’s outskirts. In order to make the trip to and from the school, Tachiarai and I both had to cross this river. We passed through a narrow alleyway like roaming cats, wedged between old houses topped with wood-tiled rooves, and quickly arrived at the “sturdy bridge.” It was an old thing, skillfully supported by piers of blackened wood—the planks above gratuitously covered in asphalt. The bridge was only meant for pedestrians, so it was narrow in width. The two of us lined up side-by-side, and our umbrellas collided.
We started to walk across it. The name, “sturdy bridge,” was purely a joke, and that was made clear once it started to sway noticeably from side to side, even though there were only two of us on it. Because of the long-lasting rain, there was considerably more water flowing in the Atotsu River than usual. If I were to lean on the guardrail, it’d likely break clean off. If after getting off the bridge, the entire thing crumbled with a loud roar and was swept up by the river, I wouldn’t find it strange in the slightest. If I were to fall and be swallowed by the waters while crossing it, I wouldn’t even feel cheated as I greeted the great beyond.
I suddenly looked up in front of me.
I noticed there was a person on the opposite shore.
He was in front of the abandoned photo museum, mostly barricaded with shutters, next to the vacant display window. He stood there completely motionless. Although he had a slender frame, I couldn’t tell for sure whether or not he was male. Possibly noticing my stare, Tachiarai raised her head as well and squinted to see what was on the other side. She started to speak, her voice slightly louder than usual to combat the noise of the falling rain.
“Someone’s taking shelter from the rain over there.”
I suppose that would make sense.
This rain was that of a spring shower—a seemingly eternal rain. In addition to that, today was freezing. Yet, it didn’t look as if this person had an umbrella on them.
We reached the halfway point. The person had his back to us, and was neither particularly tall nor short. His black hair stretched to his shoulders. At his feet was a black bag so large that you wouldn’t be able to stretch your arms around it fully. He looked out of place for some reason. As I tried to put my finger on it, I quickly came upon an answer. He wore a navy jacket, pink pants, a warm-colored striped shirt, and a knitted red beanie. His sense for fashion was impressive, to say the least.
“Can you see that person over there?”
“Yeah, didn’t you hear me?”
We reached the three-quarters mark. I had the feeling our eyes met at that moment. Almost as if we were in some sort of fictitious world, there was no one else—not on either side of the river—just that person and the two of us.
My suspicions were confirmed.
“They’re not Japanese. Maybe from Central Asia…?”
“Looks like it.”
Tachiarai tilted her head in uncertainty. “It’s pretty rash to assume they aren’t Japanese just because they’re white. I mean, whites could be naturalized citizens, right?”
“Yeah, but there’s no way I could know that from just looking.”
Foreigners were not all that uncommon around here. Although Fujimurasaki was located primarily in the suburbs, I often saw people of all races pass through. What was strange, though, was to see one taking shelter from the rain in an area this far away from the center of the city.
The person appeared to be crouched down, his body shaped like a ball. He was looking up at the sky, likely inspecting the weather.
“Looks like they’re in a tough spot.”
“Sendou, sorry, but could you go on without me?”
“Moriya-kun…” she sighed, looking at me, “you’re too nosy. That umbrella wasn’t cheap, right?”
I guess she picked up on my intentions in an instant. This wasn’t the first time I’d done something like this, though, so it didn’t come as a surprise.
“Actually, it was a bargain. I picked it up on sale.” I showed an apologetic smile. “It’s the least I can do.”
Tachiarai didn’t deny it.
In the end, it looked like he was, in fact, a she. Her eyes and hair were black, and her face was shaped in a way that didn’t appear strongly Caucasian: slightly ovular and with a high-bridged nose. Above her large eyes were a set of thick eyebrows, and I found myself strangely attracted to them. I felt like parts of her still retained their childlike qualities. Her face contained the faintest trace of fatigue, but her expression remained firm. She seemed cuter than she did strange, but there was something indescribable about her eyes that softly radiated strength. Those very eyes lowered to face us as I came closer.
It looked like Tachiarai was following behind me. The girl appeared somewhat cautious; she probably didn’t trust us. In order to put her at ease, I put on a smile. I dampened my lips—even though they were already wet from the rain—and asked her a question using the English I have never once put into actual practice.
“May I help you?” I managed to pronounce it splendidly, if I do say so myself.
But she didn’t respond; her expression was a jumble of hesitation and confusion. I took another step closer and she changed her stance, as if preparing a counterattack. Her posture seemed to be challenging me, as if to say: “Come, then! I’ll take you on!” She was clearly misreading the situation.
I tried once more, this time with a different expression: “Are you in trouble?”
Nothing was getting through to her, just as I had feared. It looked like she was equally at a loss for how to respond.
Appearing conflicted, she said, “Ko ste Vi?”
“Uh… Do you need any help? What’s the matter?” I kept on trying to ask her what was wrong, adding in gestures for good measure. I ended up shaking my umbrella around without realizing it, and the drops I scattered about caused Tachiarai to scowl irritably. She wiped off her forehead—some of the drops must have hit her—and then let out a shallow sigh.
“It doesn’t look like it’s working.”
As Tachiarai said this, the girl turned to face her. Perhaps it was simply my imagination, but it seemed like her guard lowered somewhat as she did so. I suppose it’s only natural for her to feel more relaxed around someone of the same gender. Tachiarai immediately placed herself in front of me, and without even making the effort to sound courteous, said, “Want to borrow an umbrella?”
The girl’s expression softened in an instant, and she bowed her head. She responded, her voice almost sounding as if it belonged to royalty.
“Thank you very much. If it is not too much of a hassle, I will be happy to take you up on that offer. I am beyond relieved that one of you can speak Japanese.”
…What trickery. Tachiarai looked back at me as I stood there dumbfounded. Her expression changed, looking as if she were stiffing her amusement. “Not only was it rash to think she spoke English just because she was a foreigner, you shouldn’t have assumed she didn’t speak Japanese either. Don’t worry though, I won’t hold it against you.”
Tachiarai probably noticed a change in the girl’s expression when I told her the English wasn’t working and deduced that she understood Japanese. That’s just not fair…
The girl listened to Tachiarai speak—likely understanding everything—and a smile formed on her lips.
“You can speak Japanese too?”
I quickly responded, the irritation seeping out of my voice, “Of course I can. It’s the only language I can speak. English doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“I can’t speak English either.”
“Your Japanese seems pretty good.”
“I still have a long way to go.”
She smiled once more as she said this. Every time she did, she appeared several years younger, and the strength she previously exuded was replaced by a childlike liveliness. I felt at peace in the presence of her expression, even amidst the gloom of the soft spring shower. A question slipped naturally from my mouth.
“What’s your nationality?”
“Which country are you from?”
She nodded with apparent understanding, but for some reason, there was a slight pause before she responded.
Tachiarai cut into the conversation. “Yugoslavia, right?”
“Da. Socijalistika Federativna Republika Jugoslavija.”
I had never heard of that country before—no wait, I think I have. It would probably be impossible for there to have been a country I had never once heard of in my time here on Earth, but I wondered where it was located.
“You know about it, Sendou?”
Tachiarai was blessed academically—unfairly so. However, her response was surprisingly vague.
“Well, I know about it.”
“Do you know where it is?”
“Um… Eastern Europe.”
“Eastern Europe? Where Finland is?”
“No, that’s Northern Europe. I think it’s around where Bulgaria is…”
I pictured a mental map of Europe in my head. To the west of the Italian peninsula was Portugal, Spain, and then across the Pyrenees Mountains was France, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Switzerland, northern Italy, a bunch of small nations around there, and to the east of that was Austria, Poland… Beyond that was Eastern Europe.
That’s strange. I moved on my mental map to the Middle East. There was Israel, Iran, Iraq, Kuwait… I had a basic, fragmented knowledge of the region due the Gulf War earlier this year, but even that memory was shoddy at best. Then where did Greece go, again?
“Eastern Europe, right? Eastern Europe…”
“Uh, Moriya-kun, it might be better if I called it Central Europe,” said Tachiarai, revising it in a way that likely made little difference.
The girl waved her hand dismissively. “I appreciate the thought, but saying it is in the east is fine. I don’t like the west—uh… I don’t really like the west?”
“Are you trying to say, ‘That’s not to say I like the west?’ You want to say you don’t necessarily dislike it, either?”
The girl enthusiastically shouted infantile shorthand for the word “dad.” She looked so strangely happy that it managed to infect me a little as well.
“I guess you really don’t have anything to do with English, do you? At any rate, here, use this.”
I stuck my arm out, holding the opened umbrella. Naturally, it was still raining, but Tachiarai made no moves to shelter me with hers. Out of options, I stood next to the Yugoslavian girl beneath the eaves. She took the umbrella and bowed again, this time more deeply than before.
“Thank you very much. I appreciate it a lot.” Her eyes then dropped to the umbrella she now held in her hands. “How will I return it?”
“Oh, don’t worry about it; it’s yours. As with books, once I lend out an umbrella, I don’t expect it to come back.”
“That is a very interesting way of looking at things. Well then, thank you again.”
She bowed once more.
I took note of how big the umbrella was as she carried it—naturally, as it was made for men. As I looked at the umbrella, however, and compared it to the large bag at her feet, I had to admit it didn’t seem like it’d provide enough protection. I imagined her carrying that massive bag in her thin arms as she braved the full force of the Japan-famous spring shower, and it seemed like a ridiculous prospect. The bottoms of her pink pants had already become thoroughly soaked.
Well, Tachiarai had already called me nosy once. I might as well go a little further.
“So, what’s your destination from here on out?”
She stared at me blankly and didn’t respond. I suppose, like earlier, I used words or phrasing that she found hard to understand. I revised my sentence to make it easier to follow.
“Where are you going now?”
“Was that still too hard?”
The girl shook her head. I guess people in Yugoslavia also shook their heads from side to side when they didn’t understand something. Or perhaps it was a European export to Japan.
“It’s not that; I understand your Japanese, but I’m not sure how to answer that question.”
“Are you lost?” asked Tachiarai, but she continued to shake her head all the same.
“No. Um, it’s a long story… How should I say this?” She was silent for a moment, likely trying to find the best way to say it, and then finally continued, “I don’t have anywhere to go.”
Tachiarai and I exchanged glances: a vagrant from Eastern Europe? The girl must have noticed our expressions since she immediately tried to backtrack, waving her hands in front of her as if trying to dispel cigarette smoke.
“What I mean is, um, I am in a tough situation. I am not sure what I should do and where I should go. I am in quite a bit of distress.”
She knew some surprisingly uncommon words, but I guess that’s what happens when you speak in a language aside from your mother tongue. Not that I was qualified to say that, of course, considering my mother tongue was my only language. But that was irrelevant. What was more pressing was the troubled Yugoslavian girl before us. I lowered my voice so that only Tachiarai would hear.
“What should we do?” Asking this was a mistake, of course; there was only one way she’d respond.
“Do whatever you want, Moriya-kun.”
“I’d lose sleep if we just left her here.”
“That’d be simply awful. I’d just hate for you to not get any sleep.”
“Could you stay here and help me out with this?”
“Oh, what was that? I could have sworn you wanted me to go on without you.”
She wordlessly waved her hand at me and then turned to face the Yugoslavian girl. It goes without saying that her manner towards the girl, one devoid of any kind of courtesy, was, at most, a way to preserve her aloof façade.
“Here in Japan, we have a certain phrase: ‘The ship has already departed.’ “2
“What does ‘departed’ mean?”
Although the girl was clearly perplexed, Tachiarai didn’t answer her question, and instead pointed to a city map next to us.
“I’m tired of talking, standing out here like this. If we go through this street, we’ll reach a shopping district. If you’d like, you can tell us all about your situation over a nice, hot drink.” She then added, “It looks like he wants to help you.”
I couldn’t help but think that hearing this suggestion would make the girl freshly suspicious of our intentions; To my surprise, she nodded vigorously in agreement.
“I would be more than grateful.”
Perhaps we had won her over by giving her the umbrella, but whatever the reason, she picked up and carried her bag in a way befitting a railway porter and accepted us with a beaming smile.
We passed through the alleyway and arrived at a café. In all honestly, it wasn’t the kind of place I’d visit more than once. There were far too many pictures of cars, boats, and other random hobbyist themes littered along the walls, making the shop feel somewhat uncomfortable; it didn’t help that the café’s owner was always talking to regular customers in an annoyingly loud voice. Worst of all was the lackluster quality of their sandwiches. They were terrible, to be frank. Unfortunately, though, this place ended up being the closest to the photo museum.
The three of us were the only customers on this rainy evening. The owner gave us some warm hand towels to wipe our faces. While I knew that using it wouldn’t do much to make me look presentable, I couldn’t hold back. The Yugoslavian girl removed her red knitted beanie and quickly wiped the scattered water drops out of her black hair. At a glance, it seemed a bit coarse. Tachiarai was the only one who didn’t touch the hand towel and instead used her red handkerchief to lightly brush off her shoulders in its place.
At any rate, the coffee warmed my body up and thoroughly relaxed me. I guess there was coffee in Yugoslavia too, given how readily the girl drank it. Taking a sip, she noted, “Kafa in Japan is a little weak.”
I took another sip after hearing that. “…Seems normal to me.”
“If this is weak to you, I suppose that means Yugoslavian coffee is much stronger,” said Tachiarai.
“Yes, and this is bitter too.”
So Yugoslavian coffee was stronger, yet less bitter than Japanese coffee? What on earth? I wonder what kind of coffee it was.
Of course, the coffee wasn’t why we were here, however. As soon as our bodies, frozen by the April rains, were amply warm, the real conversation began.
“Well then, why were you—actually, I guess we don’t know your name yet. What should we call you?”
The girl beamed back.
“Please call me Maja.”
Maja… Maja… I formed the sounds silently in my mouth. That certainly wasn’t a Japanese name. I took those sounds and then linked them to the image of the fair-skinned girl sitting in front of me. Yeah, I had to remember this name. I purposefully cleared my throat and began to speak in as dignified a manner as I could muster.
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Maja-san. My name’s Michiyuki Moriya. Mi-chi-yu-ki, Mo-ri-ya. Please call me Moriya.”
“I’m Machi Tachiarai. You can call me Machi or Sendou.”
Maja carefully watched us both as we named ourselves, one after the other. She pointed at me and said, “Moriya-san,” and then pointed at Tachiarai and said, “Machi-san. Okay, I’ve remembered them. I won’t forget.”
Great. I sipped my coffee. “Well then Maja-san, what seems to be the problem? If it’s not too complicated, we might be able to help you. If it’s okay, would you mind telling us?”
I tried to keep my words simple, but the more I made a conscious effort to do it, the harder I realized it was. Even then, there was no guarantee that what I was saying was any easier for her to understand. The image of a caterpillar getting its legs all tied up in a knot as it tripped over itself suddenly came to mind. I mean, it’s not like I even need to be that careful in the first place; Maya’s Japanese didn’t seem bad at all. But, for now, I guess I’d just do my best. Fortunately, the conversation continued smoothly, which must have been partly due to my efforts in keeping the vocabulary simple.
“Yes. Um… first, I will start by talking about myself,” Maja prefaced. “Yugoslavia is not a rich country. That is why it learns from rich countries and countries with lots of resources. That is my father’s job. When I was young, he would go to many countries and try to learn what he could.
“He also had a friend in Japan. When my father and I came to Japan, I was supposed to stay at his house for two months. However, after I came to this town, I learned that he had died. That is why I am in distress.”
“What happened to your father?”
“Not the country’s capital… Um… He is in the biggest province’s capital.”
If she wasn’t talking about Tokyo, then the second-largest city in Japan was…
“Da! That one.”
“Then why don’t you just go to Osaka?”
It seemed like the obvious answer, but Maja shook her head, “No. While my father is working in another country, I study that country and live normally. This is our promise. I can’t return back, no matter what happens. Only when it is time for me to return to Yugoslavia will I go to Osaka.”
“Hmm… I see.”
After conversing, I could tell that her Japanese did have some odd quirks, but I could understand her situation well enough. Another thing I quickly picked up on was her stubborn side. If you’re stranded, aimlessly roaming a foreign land—being pelted by its rain—you should swallow some of your pride and ask for a little help. That said, I had to admit: I do admire her spirit…
What this boiled down to, then, was Maja needing a place to live.
“What was the name of the person who was supposed to look after you?”
“Isn’t there anyone else in his family that you can ask?”
I took care to keep my words simple. There wasn’t any point in introducing words that might confuse her.
Maja shook her head once more. “Taizou Ichiya did not have a family.”
There wasn’t much that could be done about that.
I reached out to pick up my coffee and whispered to Tachiarai. “Should we help her get her a room at a guesthouse or something?”
“Do you have a cheap one in mind? Judging by her story, I’m guessing she doesn’t have much in the way of money…”
“In the end, it always comes down to money…”
Tachiarai nodded and then got straight to the point. “Maja-san, what’s your limit for how much you can afford, rent-wise?”
“I’m sorry, limit? Rent-wise?”
Tachiarai was tactless as always… I chimed in from the side. “How much can you pay every day for a place to live?”
Maja nodded several times, deep in thought, and then softly pressed the corners of her eyes.
“I do not think it will be enough, but about 1,000 yen.”
Tachiarai and I exchanged glances. No matter how hard we tried, it’d be impossible to find a place that cheap. Even if we were to go through hell and high water to find a good price, 4,000 yen would probably be the cutoff for both meals and lodging. Maja’s expression darkened, possibly piecing together the situation from our reactions.
“Is it no good?”
For a moment, I considered the possibility of having her work a part-time job to help pay, but I quickly dismissed the idea. No matter how ignorant my high school self was of the outside world, even I knew a foreigner without a work visa wouldn’t be able to find a legitimate job. Also, even though I’ve heard a bit about it, I didn’t have any actual working experience. Besides, if I understand Maja’s story correctly, her father is related to a government in some way. Getting her involved in some kind of under-the-table work would be beyond disastrous.
“There’s nothing we can do,” muttered Tachiarai promptly.
I wasn’t planning on giving up so easily, however. We knew in reality we were powerless to do anything about it, but I wasn’t going to simply lie down and admit it. The important thing was to figure out if there was anywhere she could stay on that paltry budget. Hotels and inns were out of the question. Guesthouses were cutting it close. How about a youth hostel? But for two months on 1,000 yen a day…
Wait a second. Was any kind of lodging okay?
It turned out there was an easy solution after all. I put on a large smile and turned to Tachiarai.
“You have the most revolting face on right now. Is there something wrong?”
“Does your house have any unused rooms at the moment?”
“Like a homestay?” she started, but then quickly continued, “My house won’t work—and I’m not saying that to be stingy; we simply don’t have enough space. How about, instead of asking others, you offer your own house first?”
My house, huh? Tachiarai must have known that my house was out of the question, especially since I had to ask her if she could do it first, but that didn’t stop her from bringing it up out of what appeared to be short-tempered irritation. Two or three days were one thing, but two months would be no easy task. My house was a last resort.
But was there any other alternative?
“Hm… Do you have an idea?” said Maja.
“Hold on a second.”
Essentially, we were looking for a place that physically had enough room to accommodate one more person. Furthermore, whoever lived there needs to be willing to take Maja under their proverbial wing. Where on earth could we find someone that ideal?
I could feel the creases in my forehead deepen as I continued deep in thought. I took another sip of the coffee and ended up emptying the cup. I continued to hold onto it, moving it around aimlessly in my hand. Was there really nothing we could do?
Suddenly, Tachiarai muttered something under her breath. “Izuru.”
“Huh?” I said.
Tachiarai responded as if talking to her cup. “I think Izuru could take her in. You know her, right? Izuru?”
I nodded, and at the same time, realized what Tachiarai was getting at. I see; Izuru was a good idea.
In this city propped up by tourism, Shirakawa’s family ran an inn connected to their house by the name of Kikui. The building itself didn’t resemble the grand inns of old—those exclusively tailored to accommodate royalty—but it was magnificent to the point where it might as well have been. The Shirakawas themselves were all incredibly good people—always trying to do as much as possible for their guests. She’d probably at least hear us out. I cooperated with her on student council activities, and she proved to be invaluable. But I had no idea she and Tachiarai knew each other. Incidentally, though I call Tachiarai “Sendou,” referencing the word for ferryman, Shirakawa’s name has nothing to do with Yoshimoto’s novel.3
“You’re friends with Shirakawa?”
“I wouldn’t say we’re friends, but we do know each other.”
“If that’s the case, we should call her. I hope she’s home.”
“I think it’ll be fine.”
“Will you be okay calling her?”
Tachiarai briefly froze, and then hummed hesitantly as she looked up at the ceiling.
“Uh… hey, we should probably try to increase our chances of success as much as possible, right?”
“Yeah, that sounds about right.”
“Maybe you should take care of it then.”
“Yeah,” I nodded and then did a double-take. “Wait, why me?”
Tachiarai returned an uncharacteristically warm smile. “I have… something of a small debt to her at the moment. It’d be a little difficult for me to ask her a favor.”
Interesting. I had no idea what was going on between the two of them, but I wasn’t exactly in a better position to ask anything of her. After all, I hadn’t spoken to her even once over the phone. I had no leverage with her, yet…
“Sorry, but could you do this for me?”
If it were any other person, I would’ve refused, but because it was Tachiarai, I guess there was no way around it. I suppose I was also the one who started all this in the first place, so it made a certain degree of sense. I faced Maja, who was carefully observing our conversation with baited breath, and said, “I’m going to step out and make the call.”
I stood up from the booth. There was a payphone next to the shop’s entrance, so I pulled out two 10 yen coins from my wallet.
Oh, wait… I needed to find her number in the phone book first. It’d probably be fastest to search by address.
After three rings, the phone connected to Kikui Inn. It looked like both the house and business phones were connected as even though I pulled the number from under her name, the person on the other end responded with this:
“Thank you for calling. This is the traditional inn, Kikui. How may I help you?”
I was taken aback at first, but I recognized the soft, slow voice, emanating a familiar calmness. This didn’t stop me from responding as if I didn’t, however.
“I’m sorry to be bothering you at this hour. My name is Moriya, from Fujimurasaki High School. Has Izuru-san returned yet?”
“Helping out with the family business, huh? Color me impressed.”
The voice from the other end responded shyly.
“It’s nothing special. It’s rare, though, for you to be calling like this.”
“It’s the first time, if I’m remembering correctly.”
“I… guess so. I think you’re right. Did something happen?”
“Yeah. It’s a bit of a long story.”
After that preface, I took a single breath.
I told her the condensed story of Maja. It turned out Shirakawa had also only vaguely heard of Yugoslavia before.
One after the other, I told her about the events leading up to us coming to know Maja, about how she lost her connection in Japan, and finally about how she had next to nothing in terms of money to live somewhere. Shirakawa listened as I spoke, interjecting with small things here and there.
Shirakawa was a good person—I would be hard pressed to find anything bad to say about her. However, if I were to point out something like a flaw, it would have to be that she was a little slow. She was the kind of person that would see something happen twice and still be shocked when it happened a third time. As I told her it would be impossible for me to look after Maja, however, it was clear that she fully understood the situation.
“So basically,” Shirakawa started as I finished speaking, “you’re asking me if I could let her live at my place?”
I couldn’t bring myself to confirm her suspicions right away. It was true that was the gist of what I was asking, but…
I paused in thought.
“That’s right, but it should go without saying that you don’t have any obligation to do this. What’s more is this is Maja’s problem, so you shouldn’t consider it me asking a favor. I don’t want to pressure you into doing anything. Just imagine I’m throwing the story out there, that’s all.”
I heard a faint chuckle from the other end, almost sounding like a small exhale. When Shirakawa laughed, she did so silently, her mouth unmoving.
“That sounds like something you’d say, Moriya-kun.”
Was that a compliment? Probably not. Figures…
“She can speak Japanese, right?”
“Yeah.” I thought for a second and added, “She sounds a bit rough here and there, but there shouldn’t be any problems talking with her.”
“As long as we can understand each other, that’s fine.”
She put off giving me a definite answer, not a shred of worry in her voice.
“Okay, I understand. I really do want to help her, but I also have to worry about our business. Let me talk it over a bit with my family. If we do let her stay, she’s probably going to have to help out around the inn. Call me again in about 30—no, 20 minutes. I’ll also try to get a ride over there. It’s raining, so I guess there’s nothing I can do about that. Where are you at the moment?”
I gave her the café’s name.
“I think we came here once before, on student council duty. Do you remember the way?”
“Yeah. The sandwiches there were really…”
I came to her rescue as she hesitated to say the rest. In a voice I made sure was quiet enough as to not be heard by the shop owner, I whispered:
“It’s a terrible shop.”
I heard her airy chuckle once more.
“I’ll see you later, then.”
The payphone ejected a single 10 yen coin.
Tachiarai asked me how it when went I returned, but I instead started speaking to Maja.
Born perhaps from shameless confidence or perhaps from simple optimism, Maja was apparently calmly enjoying her apparently un-Yugoslavian coffee. After I said her name, she finally put down her cup.
“I just talked to someone who might be able to give you a place to stay.”
“If that person ends up saying its fine, it won’t cost much. In exchange, you’ll probably have to do some unpaid work. Is that okay?”
Without even a trace of unease, she nodded on the spot. “I prefer it that way… I am very thankful. Thank you very much.”
“That’s that, then. We have some time to kill before she’ll have her answer ready.”
I sank back deep into the booth seat. I picked up my coffee cup, but then quickly remembered that I had finished it earlier.
Ever since we first talked to her in front of the photo museum, Maja’s attitude seemed surprisingly carefree, even when factoring in the fact that Tachiarai and I barely knew her. Even though she had finally arrived at her destination only to be met with the news that the person she was supposed to meet had passed away, she didn’t seem “in distress”—to borrow her words—in the slightest. It’s possible that it was because she considered her father in Osaka to be something of a safety net. But in my opinion, it was the kind of composure that one could only develop from having lots of experience in these kinds of situations. In that case, it’s entirely possible that she would’ve found a way to get by on her own, even without our help. Or perhaps… she predicted from her experiences that people like us would come to help her.
It seemed that, as I was pondering these things, Maja was busy opening herself up to Tachiarai. Although Tachiarai was acting somewhat standoffish, she wasn’t being particularly harsh, either. I guess Maja preferred talking to other girls after all.
“How old are you, Machi-san?”
This time, it was Tachiarai that misunderstood the situation. She held up both hands, extending one finger, and said, “One.” She then extended 7 more,and continued, “Eight.”
“Yeah, osamnaest. Eighteen. That is one year older than me.”
So Maja was 17, huh? The same age as me, then. I could have sworn she was younger.
“That means you are a, um… a high school student, Machi-san?”
“That’s right, although I’m more a test-prep student at this point.”
“Test… prep student? Is that different from a high school student?”
”It’s a type of student,” I said without thinking, “It’s a special word for students who are preparing to take entrance tests.”
As expected, Tachiarai was terrible at being diplomatic with her wording. Maja furrowed her brow in confusion, a physical reaction that I guess was universal. Before she could question us further, however, Tachiarai came forward with her own question.
“If you’re 17, what are you doing about school?”
Maja burst out into a smile and responded proudly.
“I go to school when I am in Yugoslavia. Sometimes I go to school in other countries too. However, this time you are my teachers!”
As the said this, I couldn’t help but think of the three schools I have attended thus far.
“How many times have you been in Japan?”
“This is my first time.”
“Your first? How did you learn Japanese?”
“In Češka Slovačka, there was a Japanese friend. I taught her my language, and she taught me Japanese.”
Is it even possible to master a language completely different from your own by doing only that? I knew I shouldn’t doubt her—the proof that she could speak it handily was right in front of me after all—but the truth was still a little hard to swallow. It brought to mind one of those stories about language geniuses, like Rawlinson or Champollion. She probably wasn’t on their level, though.
I had nothing to do, so as I was just listening to their conversation, I ordered a second cup of coffee.
“I don’t really know much of anything about Yugoslavia. What kind of country is it?”
As Tachiarai asked this, Maja cocked her head slightly to the side in thought. “What kind? That question is a little difficult.”
I had to agree with her; that question was a bit too abstract. It looked like Tachiarai herself realized this as well and expanded on it.
“Let’s see… For example, are there lots of mountains? Is it hot?”
Even after narrowing it down like that, Maja still had difficulty answering.
“Um… there are different kinds of places. There are lots of places with lots of mountains and places with lots of islands. Also, lots of places with flat land.”
“There’s no overall type? With Japan, it’d be something like ‘mountainous’ or an ‘island nation.’ ”
“I see. In my country, there are lots of mountains.”
That was a strange answer. Wasn’t her country the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia? Was she talking about a different one? I voiced my confusion.
She then raised her hands; her right one was open, and her left one only had one finger extended.
“I know that there are many people in Japan that do not know this: Yugoslavia has six countries.”
“I see…” Tachiarai understood it right away, but it took me a moment to digest what Maja was saying. “Federal” came from “federation,” which I think must be a collection of governments. But they couldn’t exactly be considered independent countries.
“Are they like Japan’s prefectures?”
“Compared to Japan’s prefectures, republika are much more amazing.”
“Like America’s states?” chimed in Tachiarai.
Maja shook her head slightly.
“I’m sorry, I don’t know much about Amerika. That is my older brother’s job.” She then suddenly smiled as if recalling something amusing. “That’s right. Machi-san, Moriya-san, do you know about the republika, Crna Gora?”
I shook my head earnestly. It was likely in the blank spot in my mental map next to Austria, but there was no way I’d know it if it was a newer state, like Israel. Tachiarai also seemed clueless.
Maja quietly leaned in as if about to entrust us with a secret.
“That is something you should know. If I am to speak truthfully, Crna Gora is at war with Japan. There is an official declaration of war.”
“In the past, right?”
“No, also now. Nothing says the war ended.”
Maja looked as if she were under a spell.
She then winked at us. “That is why Japanese people should never go to Crna Gora. When my friends from Crna Gora came to my house, they always told me it is dangerous to go to Japan. I hope you do not treat me like a prisoner of war!”
She giggled as if in on a secret.
“…Did you know this, Sendou?”
I figured it must’ve been a joke that had fallen flat at some point. Though, if people from the country we were supposedly at war with said so, I guess it couldn’t be completely off the mark. Because Maja was bubbling with happiness, she didn’t explain any further.
Our discussion continued.
“So, it is hot or cold? If I am to speak truthfully, I am hot right now. Yugoslavia is much colder.”
Maja removed her jacket and placed it next to her, and then she placed her knitted beanie on top. You’d think that what she was wearing would be only slightly warm in normal April weather, yet today was much colder than it should’ve been at this time. If this was hot by her standards, then—oh, I see. Yugoslavia must be brutally cold.
“Not only that, there is not much rain compared to Japan. I was very surprised by how much rain Japan has… But what my friend from Japan told me was wrong. She thought it was strange that people from Yugoslavia do not use umbrellas in rain. However, it looks like people in Japan do not use umbrellas either.”
…It didn’t look like she was joking.
Both Tachiarai and I assessed that this was the case and started to speak at the same time.
“No, umbrellas are normal.”
“We do use umbrellas, though.”
Maja looked temporarily taken aback at our simultaneous assault, but quickly regained her smile and said, “My phrases were incorrect. If I am to speak truthfully, there is very little rain in Yugoslavia, so many people do not have an umbrella. My friend said that was strange and that everyone in Japan has an umbrella. …Yes, it looks like that is true. However, people in Japan are used to the rain. It looks like people in Japan do not always use their umbrella, even if they have it.”
Oh, so that’s what she meant—
Wait, that’s still complete nonsense! If it’s raining out and you have an umbrella, you’ll use it. It doesn’t matter how often it rains in Japan. Who in their right mind would bring an umbrella and choose to not use it?
Tachiarai also looked suspicious. “There certainly is something off about this story.”
“I guess there are different kinds of people, then.”
“…Hold on, Maja-san. What even gave you that idea in the first place?”
As we asked this, Maja nodded, getting ready to tell a story. I guess I was right that something had happened.
“I came to this city yesterday. I learned that Taizou Ichiya had died and decided to spend the night at the train station while I was thinking about what to do.
“And then, this morning, when I woke up and it was dark, it was still raining. I lost my umbrella in Osaka, so I felt I was in trouble.
“Then, I looked in the direction of the city and saw a person coming from the multi-unit complex in front of me. Although he had an umbrella in his hand, he was not using it as he ran to the station. It was very interesting to me, philosophically. When coming to Japan, I thought to myself that I must learn more about Japanese philosophy.
“Well then, was I wrong?”
Maja looked at me and then Tachiarai, her expression brimming with confidence.
Her using the word “multi-unit complex” was spectacularly unnecessary. The area around Fujimurasaki Station’s South Exit, when compared with that around the North Exit, was entirely unrenovated. There were lots of regular old apartments littering the area, so when she was talking about a “multi-unit complex,” she was probably just referring to those ancient things. Of course, the problem was with the umbrella.
What if she had mistaken something else for an umbrella? Perhaps, had there been a truly insignificant amount of rain, carrying an umbrella would just end up being more trouble than it was worth. I could see it being possible if the person in question wasn’t the fussy type. However, the rain had been coming down hard for quite some time now, and this morning wasn’t an exception. Besides, if he was running in the first place, then he must have been worried about getting wet.
As I struggled to think of an explanation, Tachiarai’s expression changed to that of disinterest, and she brought the coffee cup to her lips.
“Oh, really? If that’s what you saw, then I guess you aren’t mistaken.”
As I watched her say this, devoid of enthusiasm, I realized what was going on.
Tachiarai figured out the truth behind what Maja had seen.
In the two years that I had known her, Tachiarai had often done this. She gave explanations to curious, puzzling incidents like this one as if it was the most natural thing in the world—actually, no, that’s not exactly correct. She only solved them like it was the most natural thing in the world. She never explained anything. She wasn’t doing it out of ill will or anything like that. It just wasn’t something that she did. It was a normal part of her personality. That was Machi Tachiarai in a nutshell.
That said, this was only fine around me or other people she was friendly with. Perhaps it wasn’t ideal to maintain this attitude around a visitor from foreign lands. As this thought crossed my mind, I started talking in a quiet voice, “Sendou.”
“Come on; tell her what was up with the guy.”
Tachiarai formed a smile with only her lips. “That was quite a bit of slang there. Don’t you think you should tone it down in front of Maja?”
“We’re not talking about me right now, Sendou. You figured out why he wasn’t using his umbrella, right?”
“Oh dear, why would you assume that?”
“Come on, don’t do this now.”
She smiled once more and turned to face me this time. “If you want to tell Maja, then you should be the one to tell her. How about you try figuring it out yourself?”
She had a point. If I want to do something, I should do it myself—it was only logical. But human relationships weren’t exactly rooted in logic. Shouldn’t she be a little more—I don’t know—willing to help in situations like these?
I was on the verge of saying just that, even though I knew it was hopeless. But before I did, Maja interjected a question about our conversation.
“It was a little difficult to understand, but is what you are saying that you can’t explain it to me, and that it is a very strange thing?”
I couldn’t help but nod.
“I see. Does that mean that both you and Machi-san do not know anything about it?”
I flashed Tachiarai a cold glare. Seeing it, her previously stone faced expression showed a bit of embarrassment. A small sigh escaped her lips and she started to speak.
“Maja-san, after you saw that man, did you stop watching him for a bit?”
Maja looked astonished.
“How did you know? A public security officer came and asked me a lot of questions.”
“…Have you also been to China?”
“Right again! Why do you know that?”
“In Japan we don’t call them that. They’re ‘police officers.’ But anyways, after that, the man likely ran back the same way he came.”
After saying this, Tachiarai stuck out both her index and middle fingers and halfheartedly pointed them at me.
“He’ll tell you the rest.”
Tachiarai turned her head to face mine. This time, however, she wasn’t smiling. Her face was angled slightly downwards, and she gazed at me with piercing eyes beneath her low bangs
“Moriya-kun. I believe I’ve already told you this once before. I don’t dislike the fact that you’re independent, but I also don’t like the fact that you’re too reliant on others.”
“Isn’t that a contradiction?”
“That’s a great way to describe you. Look, this is just the appetizer. It’s not like you don’t actually know the answer, right? It’s just that you haven’t thought about it in the first place.”
I couldn’t respond. It was true; I hadn’t given any real thought to it.
If she knew all that, I guess there was no helping it.
Maja sat before me, her eyes wide open with anticipation. Intending on meeting her expectations, I crossed my arms and began to think.
In reality, it was frustrating to admit it, but Tachiarai was right about my not trying hard enough to figure out the answer. It wasn’t difficult in the slightest, and now I could be certain in my solution. I unfolded my arms.
I suddenly noticed that Maja was gripping onto something I hadn’t seen in her possession before. It was a notebook with a dark brown cover, so new the stickers were still on it. In her right hand was a ballpoint pen, the kind that you could buy for 100 yen at a convenience store. Thinking back on it, she was a little hunched over earlier as well.
“I am ready when you are.”
“…Is there something wrong?”
“What’s up with that notebook?”
I pointed as I said this, and Maja looked down.
“This is a ‘notebook?’ I do not know the names of many things.”
“That’s not what I was talking about. I mean, there really isn’t anything important to record.”
Although Maja didn’t speak an ounce of English, she wagged her finger like an American.
“Ni. …I mean, no.”
“I will decide that.”
I smiled hesitantly. I didn’t really mind, but…
I cleared my throat to dispel the awkward atmosphere and started talking. “Um… well first, it should go without saying that it’s really strange for someone in Japan to not use an umbrella when it rains. It looks like you misread the situation, and it’s clear that he didn’t have anything like a raincoat, right? Although he needed to use the umbrella, he didn’t. Why do you think that was the case?”
Maja pondered the question with a puzzled expression. Without waiting for her, I continued.
“It’s pretty simple, actually. He couldn’t, probably because the umbrella was broken.”
I said this half to Tachiarai as I watched her out of the corner of my eye and saw her gazing coldly out of the window instead. However—and this might just be wishful thinking—I figured there was no way she’d let me off the hook without saying anything if my answer was that far from the truth. I felt slightly more at ease.
On the other hand, of course, Maja wasn’t having any of it.
“But that is strange. Why did he have a broken umbrella early in the morning?”
I smiled faintly.
“Maja-san, I don’t know about Yugoslavia, but in most areas in Japan, junk goes out in the morning.”
“…’Junk?’ Um… things you don’t need?”
“That’s right. For example, a broken umbrella. The only reason he was outside was to take the trash out. There are fewer collection days for nonburnables as opposed to those for burnables, so it’s best to take advantages of them when they come around—that’s right—even if he didn’t have another umbrella and got wet in the process.”
He had simply left the house for a brief moment to get rid of some unneeded items. I’d understand the man’s seemingly erratic actions if that was what had happened. If someone viewed the situation with a foreigner’s perspective like Maja had, I could see why they might assume it was a peculiar habit of the Japanese people.
Maja heaved a deep sigh.
“Hm… I see. If that was what happened, I think I can understand. Thank you very much. It looks like I was wrong.”
She looked genuinely repentant. She nodded countless times as she scribbled down this and that with her pen. Was there really anything that important to write down? I looked at Tachiarai once more, but she continued to stare listlessly outside in the same position. Could it be that she didn’t even hear a word of our conversation after passing the baton on to me?
As I wondered this, she suddenly squinted, as if training her eyes on something in the distance.
I quickly saw what Tachiarai was looking at for myself. From beyond the rain pulled up a small van. Red lights flickered on as it slowed down, and it eventually came to a complete stop in front of the café. A figure stepped out from the passenger’s seat, opening an ultramarine umbrella above her. It was Izuru Shirakawa. The sleeves of her indigo turtleneck sweater stretched all the way to the tips of her fingers as they carried the umbrella.
The bell above the door rang as Shirakawa entered. She spotted me and smiled, and then grinned even wider as she noticed Tachiarai sitting next to me.
“Machi? I didn’t realize you were here as well.”
“Sorry to make you go through all this trouble.”
As she shook the water from her umbrella on the mat in the entranceway, she faced me and said, “Sorry to make you wait.”
“Make us wait…?”
I checked my wristwatch. I see. It looked like 30 minutes had passed since I’d called her. I guess I lost track of the time talking to Maja. Although…
“Didn’t you say I should call you in 20 minutes when we talked over the phone earlier? How would I reach you if you were on the road?”
“…Did I say that?”
“Did you call?”
“Sorry, I didn’t.”
“Then no harm done. Just kidding, I probably shouldn’t have done that. I apologize.”
She lowered her head. I wasn’t really obsessive about my plans, and I wasn’t really intent on giving her a hard time about it.
Maja looked at Shirakawa and then back to me.
“Moriya-san, who is this?”
Shirakawa followed suit.
“Moriya-kun, who is this?”
I was between them, surrounded by this question in stereo.
“Shirakawa, this is Maja-san. She told us she’s from Yugoslavia. Maja-san, this is Izuru Shirakawa. She’s a friend of ours.”
I then threw a questioning glance at Shirakawa. What was the final verdict on Maja’s potential stay in the Shirakawa household?
Shirakawa nodded and then took a step forward.
“Maja-san… was it?”
“I’ve been notified of your situation. If it’s alright with you, I’d like you to stay at my home. I can’t promise you any level of hospitality, but I’d like to help you. We have a room prepared for you to stay in. We won’t ask for any money, but as compensation, we’ll ask you to help out with the dishwashing and cleaning.”
Maja’s face glowed.
“Thank you extremely much!”
She then stuck out her right hand. It was a worldwide sign of goodwill and affection. Shirakawa was taken aback at first, but soon smiled and rolled back her sleeve to grip Maja’s hand. It looked like, somehow, everything worked out in the end. I felt a wave of relief come over me.
Tachiarai called out to the two of them. “I hope you’ll let me come see you again sometime later.”
“Yes, please come. There are many things I want to ask about Japan. Machi-san, Moriya-san… thank you very much!”
She bowed deeply at both me and Tachiarai. We waved our hands in return—a gesture something like a “you’re welcome” or “no problem.” I glanced at the rain once more and saw that there were still no signs of it letting up. At the very least, I somehow got through all of this without sacrificing my umbrella. The walk home shouldn’t pose any problems, now.