* * *
Chapter 6: The Relaxed Country
We were sitting in a tea shop.
The tea shop was in a small home standing all alone by a dirt road.
Master Shizu sat on the back porch, looking out at the country on that lazy afternoon.
I sat on the firm dirt outside the porch, also looking out at the world before us.
It was sunny and warm, and fields splotched in greens and yellows spread in haphazard rows as far as the eye could see. Barns and silos dotted the landscape.
“What a relaxed country.”
I silently agreed.
My name is Riku. I am a dog.
I have long, soft, white fur. I look as though I am always smiling, but that doesn’t mean I’m always happy. I was simply born with this face.
My owner is Master Shizu. He is a young man who is always wearing a green sweater, and he is traveling on a buggy after having lost his home in complex circumstances. I am accompanying him as we travel through all sorts of countries.
Master Shizu has no specific destination in mind. That is to say, he has a destination, but that destination is not a location.
The road took us to a country in the middle of a vast plain.
The guard at the gates let us through without even going through basic entry procedures. He was very curious to see an outlander.
“It’s good of you to come visit, but we really have nothing to show or offer here.”
He was right. Inside the walls, we found an endless expanse of fields. Forests and lakes occasionally broke the monotony, but not often enough. It seemed that this was an entirely agricultural country.
We continued along the road and the unchanging scenery around us until Master Shizu finally spotted a tea house.
“Dearie me, a traveler? How very unusual. Do relax and take your time here,” the old woman said, placing a cup of green tea next to Shizu. It did not smell of poison.
Master Shizu thanked the old woman and reached for his beloved sword, which he had propped up next to him. He put it down in front of me. It was my job to protect his sword when his attention had to be elsewhere. It was a job for me and me alone.
As he sipped his tea, Master Shizu asked the old woman about the country.
The old woman seemed to have nothing else to do, as she sat down beside him and answered all his questions.
The people of this land were all farmers living leisurely lives. They had a small population and a low population density, with fewer villages than they could count on their hands.
There were no potential enemies in the area, because there was nothing to be gained from conquering this country.
Very few travelers ever came to this land, and even if they did, there was not much for them to see and enjoy.
The country was a quiet, simple place where not much ever happened.
“And where might you be headed, young man?”
With a wry smile, Master Shizu shrugged. Then he confessed that he was a wanderer with no specific destination in mind.
The old woman seemed a little surprised, but replied, “If you’d like to settle down here, we’re always open to immigrants. There’s plenty of land to go around, and lots of farms that need a hand. And guard work, too, if you know how to fight.” Then she added, “Although there’s not much to guard against around here.”
Master Shizu smiled. “I wouldn’t mind that.”
The old woman went back into the kitchen.
Master Shizu cast his gaze at the fields once more. “What a relaxed country.”
I silently agreed.
A tractor was crawling across a field in the distance. It was headed towards a farmhouse, perhaps carrying a farmer home after a long day’s work.
“It might not be so bad here. Raising cattle and living a quiet life. Something I’ve never done before. I don’t need to do hard labor for others, and I don’t need to kill to survive. No more wandering through wastelands. A peaceful and stable place to call home, maybe for good…” Master Shizu mused. His eyes were still on the distance—and perhaps on his own past and future.
“Maybe so,” I replied, and said nothing more. The decision was his to make, not mine.
The old woman came over just as Master Shizu was about to continue.
“More tea, Traveler?”
Master Shizu held out his cup, and the old woman poured him a brimming cupful of green tea. She placed it next to him. There was a distant thud, and the ground began to shake.
Was it an earthquake? The house and the ground below shook. The wooden building rattled on its foundations, and droplets of tea sloshed out of the cup.
Soon, the trembling stopped. It had only lasted a few seconds.
“Oh dear,” the old woman sighed, wiping the spilled tea off the porch.
That was when I realized that Master Shizu was frozen, utterly thunderstruck. He was looking straight ahead.
I followed his gaze and was equally shocked.
The farmhouse and tractor from earlier were nowhere to be seen.
“Where’s the house?” Master Shizu wondered, getting off his seat. The old woman cast a glance in the same direction.
“Ah, I thought so. It’s been a while since the last one. Someone might have died, from the looks of it,” she said nonchalantly.
“Wh-what happened?” Master Shizu asked, turning.
The old woman asked him to wait a moment, and went to the phone on the wall to call someone.
Soon, she ended the call and turned. “I daresay it might be better for you to go see in person. Follow the road right and make a left at the last intersection. But don’t get too close.”
Master Shizu and I got on the buggy and followed the woman’s directions.
He parked at the crest of a small hill and disembarked. I leapt from the passenger seat to the hood, and realized what had happened.
There was a gaping hole in the ground.
It was almost perfectly circular in shape, and was about 200 meters wide. From the hill, it was impossible to tell how deep it went. It was a straight drop, which had likely swallowed the farmhouse and the tractor whole.
As Master Shizu looked on in horror, we heard sirens behind us. A truck with a crane approached. Master Shizu moved the buggy out of the way.
The truck stopped right in front of the hole and lowered the crane. Suspended from the crane was a bucket carrying a person.
“That was fast. They’re well-prepared, too,” Master Shizu whispered.
Another vehicle came up and parked next to the buggy.
“You’re a traveler, I see,” said the man in the truck, “Keep your distance, now. Don’t want to end up falling in. Follow this road up that way and turn right, and you’ll see a tea house. The old woman there can tell you more about this.”
“Did you see the hole?” the old woman said casually when Master Shizu and I returned.
“Yes. What was it? What caused it?” Master Shizu asked.
The old woman did not seem very concerned. “There used to be a quarry here, a very long time ago. So they say the ground here is full of cavities. The land could cave in at any time.”
“Is there no way to fill in the cavities?”
“I’m afraid we don’t have any maps of the old quarry, or people to explore them,” the old woman said, troubled. But she quickly regained her composure. “But it’s nothing to be worried about, dear. It’s very rare that people and houses fall in like today. We can always fill in the holes, and the cave-ins only happen a few times a month. Nothing to fret over.”
The old woman refilled Master Shizu’s cold tea.
“So what will you be doing now, Traveler? If you’re looking to settle here, I could help you look for a house.”
With a rather stiff smile, Master Shizu shook his head.
And he asked for directions to a place where he could buy portable rations and refuel his buggy immediately.