* * *
Chapter 5: The Country that Never Forgets
The forest had burned down.
The mountain range was rippling with climbs and steep slopes, their trees burnt black and left to stand like charred pillars. The soil had hardened and was blanketed in ash and charcoal.
Grey clouds covered the sky, as if to match the landscape. Even in the light, it was hard to tell where the horizon was. Droplets of rain plopped to the ground on occasion.
A road snaked along the mountain range. It wound around up and down the mountainsides, and was just wide enough for a single car.
Traveling down the road was a motorrad.
It had a luggage rack in place of a back seat, loaded with a large suitcase. Compartments hung from either side of its rear wheel, and a rolled-up sleeping bag and a brown coat were secured to the top of the suitcase.
The rider was a young human in her mid-teens, wearing a black jacket and a thick belt. A holstered revolver was strapped to her right thigh. On her head was a hat with a bill and ear flaps, and a pair of goggles protected her eyes.
Cautiously, the rider navigated her way along the muddy road. When she happened across a large pothole, she stopped the motorrad and examined its depth before making it across in one go.
“Kino,” the motorrad said.
Kino replied, “Yeah?”
“Do you remember how many countries we’ve visited so far?”
Kino shook her head. “No. What about you, Hermes?”
“Of course not. I was asking because I thought maybe you knew,” replied Hermes.
“I remember some countries clearly,” Kino said, “But I don’t recall all the details. Maybe I should have kept a journal.”
“People forget things that don’t leave an impact, or things they don’t really need to know. Who knows? Maybe I’ve forgotten that I’ve gone to some countries at all. But…”
“But?” asked Hermes.
“Some people think being able to forget is one of the good things about being human,” Kino said, splashing through a shallow puddle.
“What’s that mean?”
“That we can forget the painful things and move on with optimism. We’re not held back by despair.”
“It really depends on the person, though. I think some things should be remembered.”
“Like that time you turned so hard on the muddy road that your motorrad slipped and tipped over?” Hermes asked pointedly.
Kino’s left leg and arm, and the compartment on Hermes’ left side were still caked with mud.
The winding road sank into a valley, stretching on in parallel with the stream at the base. The current was quick and muddy.
Kino and Hermes pressed on. Eventually they escaped the mountain range and found themselves at the crest of a gentle hill. Beyond was the country they were headed for.
The country in the hollow was surrounded by walls. The hollow was about the only flatland in the area, with the many streams from the mountains converging into it.
“Finally. That was a long trip,” Hermes said.
Kino replied, “Yeah. All that riding in the mud sucked the energy out of me. I just want to spend the next three days resting. Maybe I’ll just relax at the hotel for three days?”
“You might as well check out the country, though. And maybe go to a festival.”
“If there is one, maybe.”
Kino and Hermes made their way down the slope.
“Thank you for your patience. You’re cleared to enter,” said the gatekeeper at the guardhouse. “By the way, are you here for the events?”
“Events?” “Is something happening?” asked Kino and Hermes.
“You didn’t know? Well, you’re just in time for the Memorial Events. It starts today and runs until the day after tomorrow. It’s an annual tradition we’ve been keeping since the great deluge seven years ago.”
“There was a flood here?” Kino asked quickly.
The gatekeeper nodded. “Yes, a very big one. The biggest in our history, actually. An entire week of rain, causing chaos and confusion. We suffered many casualties, and countless buildings were demolished. The muddy water pooled for three days. Even after it drained, we had to contend with large-scale health and hygiene problems. We now commemorate the occasion to make sure we always remember the painful memories.”
“All citizens are required by law to participate in the proceedings,” said the gatekeeper. “I hope you will decide to join in as well.”
Kino pushed Hermes through the gates. Just inside the walls was a plaza.
“It must have started already.”
The plaza was packed with onlookers. Someone was giving a speech.
“—and we survived the horrors of the deluge. It is with deepest gratitude that we live on peacefully today, bearing our memories of those we lost in that tragic flood. We now look to the future and take a bold new step—”
A podium stood under the cloudy sky, and a man was passionately orating into the microphone. Several VIPs sat behind him on the stage.
“Our country will never forget. We hereby pledge to remember the past as we live on—”
Kino pushed Hermes forward, slowly approaching the event.
“—and now, it is with great joy that I announce the end of the ceremonies taking place at the East Gate this morning. Thank you for your time!”
Everyone held a moment of silence.
Afterwards, the crowd began to disperse. One of the people spotted Kino.
He introduced himself and explained that the event was commemorating the great flood, and that the flood was great indeed. Kino and Hermes had heard most of it from the gatekeeper already, but this explanation went on even longer.
“Look, Traveler,” said another local, pointing at a mark on the country’s gate. It was much higher up than a person was tall. “That’s how high the water rose during the peak of the flood. Isn’t it scary?”
A narrow stream ran next to the plaza. The streams were channeled into waterways that ran through the walls, running directly into the country.
“That tiny stream became a raging river. The rain wouldn’t stop, and the water just kept on coming… There was nothing we could do.”
Kino scrutinized the stream and the waterway.
“Did you see the mark on the gate?” asked another local. Kino cringed for half a second, but she smiled and shook her head.
The country was completely flat.
Farms were laid out in orderly sections, and wooden single-story houses lined the streets. The shallow streams ran parallel to the roads and were used as irrigation canals. Kino spotted haphazard mud levees, and small yellow flowers in brilliant bloom on the roadside.
Kino and Hermes made their way to the center of the country at a relaxed pace. They spotted a hotel in an area with larger buildings, and stepped inside.
Once they were led into a room, Kino propped up Hermes and unloaded her things.
Then Kino went up to the rooftop on the second floor, where she could see the country’s walls beyond the few high-rises in the area, and the mountains surrounding the hollow. Downstream to the west were green peaks, and upstream to the east were brown burnt-out hills.
She looked up. The sky was still covered in a thick blanket of clouds.
“I’ll go take a nap.”
Kino returned to find a bellboy waiting at her door. “I’ve been looking for you, Miss Kino. We’re actually on our way to the afternoon events, so I regret to inform you that lunch will not be served at the hotel today. But if you have the time, I suggest you attend today’s proceedings. Food will be served free of charge, with unlimited refills.”
Kino went into her room. “Which is why we’re going, Hermes.”
Near the hotel, at the center of the country, was a large park. It was covered with grass, with pathways and trees forming ponds that dotted the landscape.
In the middle of the park was a large concrete platform topped with a statue of people aboard a small boat. It was a monument commemorating the flood, surrounded by lit candles.
In front of the monument was a stage—slightly larger than the one at the East Gate—with a podium equipped with a microphone, next to which were multiple large tents. Banners reading ‘Never Forget’ were hung up all around the park.
The crowds had already gathered. The chairs were all taken, leaving standing room only. Stands sold food and drinks to onlookers, and people were rushing around to make preparations.
“They look like they’re enjoying themselves. You sure this isn’t a festival?” Hermes wondered.
Soon, a band marched up next to the stage with their instruments and took their seats. Then a group of well-dressed people stepped up—men and women, young and old.
After a brief microphone test, the emcee came up to the podium and gave a lengthy introduction. The event began.
First, everyone held a moment of silence.
Then came the speeches from the VIPs.
Then the emcee praised the firefighters who bravely undertook rescue work during the flood—the people sitting in the front row.
Then the emcee introduced everyone on stage. They took turns giving speeches of their own.
A middle-aged woman who lifted the spirits of everyone at the shelter. A man who lost his job but never stopped encouraging others in his position. A teacher who replanted trees along the roads with the help of her students.
“Wake me up when it’s over,” Hermes mumbled as the event went on, and said no more.
The final speech was from a young girl who was orphaned in the flood. She read out a letter addressed to him, assuring her late father that the people around her were giving her all the help she needed, and that she would stay strong for him. Audience members broke down crying.
“Here, Traveler,” someone said, handing Kino a set of lyrics.
“We will now close the proceedings with the Requiem, to remember the past and to bring peace to the souls who were lost in the flood,” said the emcee.
A conductor came forward, bowed to the audience, and turned to the band. The music began.
A chorus started singing first, and the people followed.
Kino looked at the lyrics.
Requiem: Never Forget
One quiet spring day
One still spring day
Droplets turned to streams and spilled upon the earth
One day turned to nine and swallowed the land
O, how cruel is fate
Rain, ten days and nights
Our beloved home
*Set upon by torrents (by torrents)
Set upon by torrents (by torrents)
O, how cruel is fate
Land turned to sea, homes turned to islands
Peaceful tables pulled into mud
Plates left afloat, elders dragged down
Homes were lost, rest was lost
Lives uncountable were lost
As were our foundations
Our unity was tested (tested)
Our courage was tested (tested)
Drained rivers turned to streams
Mounds of mud turned to soil
But never will our memories fade
We turn our voices to the heavens
We will never forget that day
We will never forget (never forget)
We will never forget (never forget)
Never forget that day
The song ended with a round of applause, closing the curtains on the proceedings at the park.
Some left immediately, and others stayed to chat with family and friends. But most people lined up at the tents for lunch.
Kino smacked Hermes awake and got in line. She was informed that during and after the flood, the locals were reduced to eating rations provided by the government. The tents were a sort of reenactment of the past.
“We don’t want to forget, after all.”
After a long wait, Kino finally got her food. Two rice balls, and a bowl of meat-and-vegetable soup. She sat down next to Hermes and dug in.
“Now what?” Hermes said once she was done.
“I think we’ve seen enough of the events,” Kino said. “Let’s go and resupply.”
They left the park and headed to a nearby shopping district.. The streets were packed with people on their way home.
Kino spotted a clothing store and asked the owner, “Do you have any white shirts in stock?”
The owner held up a shirt with the words ‘7 YEARS LATER: PROUD SURVIVOR’ on the back. A stylized flooded house was embroidered over the left breast.
Kino was lost for words.
“It’s a little pricier than your average shirt, but it’ll be a wonderful souvenir for your travels. Check out some of our other merchandise—”
The owner presented a children’s shirt labeled ‘NOW TALLER THAN THE MARK IN THE COUNTRY CENTER’, a hat with the words ‘A STORY TO TELL THE GRANDKIDS: THE DELUGE’, and a coat with a map of the city, which marked the water levels from the flood.
“Do you have anything…normal in stock?” asked Kino.
“Not right now. We only stock merchandise that sells well at this time of the year.”
Kino and Hermes gave up on getting shirts and headed to a hardware store for a new knife. The owner could only offer one engraved with the words ‘7 YEARS—SPRING AGAIN’.
She tried to buy a new sharpening stone, but the store only sold commemorative editions that came in special cases. Kino asked for the price and was baffled.
“…I see this must be a premium product. Is it a limited run?”
“No, no. It’s just a souvenir. Isn’t the case great?”
“Couldn’t I just buy the stone without the case for the regular price?”
“I’m afraid not. This is the only thing we have in stock until the day after tomorrow. Everyone’s crazy about the anniversary products because we only sell them this time of the year.”
In the end, Kino left the hardware store empty-handed. She headed for a persuader store.
When she asked for ammunition, the owner turned to the back room.
“Hey, have we got any anniversary rounds for hand persuaders? The .44 caliber enamel points?”
Someone at the back answered.
“Sorry, traveler, we only have the regular kind today,” the owner said apologetically.
By the time they returned to the hotel, it was raining. Droplets of water drummed against the rooftop.
“That was close. Almost got soaked,” said Hermes.
Kino looked out the window. “It’s really pouring today,” she said to a nearby employee.
“Yes, but it’s nothing unusual this time of year. We had a bit of a dry spell earlier, so everyone’s looking forward to the streams filling up again. And don’t worry, it’s not nearly enough rain for flooding or avalanches.”
Kino went back to her room.
“What’s wrong?” asked Hermes, “You’ve been going quiet a lot since yesterday.”
“I’m trying to remember,” Kino said.
“I think I’m forgetting something.”
Kino furrowed her brow. “I wonder.”
The next morning.
Kino woke up and looked out the window. It was still raining, and still dark even though dawn had come.
After taking apart and doing maintenance on Cannon, Kino cleaned it and did marksmanship drills.
Even at breakfast, the sky remained dark and the rain showed no sign of slowing.
When she returned to her room, Hermes said, “You should take the day off and relax.”
Kino did basic maintenance on Hermes and checked her belongings. Then she sharpened some of her knives with her old sharpening stone.
Even then, the rain continued. Kino turned on the radio.
“It has been seven years since the historic deluge. We will be live at the Central Stadium this afternoon to bring you full coverage of the events. We must never forget the—”
Kino fell into thought again.
“Did you remember?”
Kino shook her head. “It’s no good. For now…”
Kino rose. “I’m going to ask if I can have lunch at the hotel today.” Then she stepped outside.
Hotel employees were supplied with commemorative rations, which Kino also received. That was when she heard the weather forecast, which predicted rain into the next day.
“Good thing, too. The forests catch fire at the slightest spark in the winter because it gets so dry.”
Kino turned to go back to her room, when she suddenly looked back at the employee in shock.
“When was the most recent forest fire?”
“Hm? About a month ago. We think it must have been a lightning strike—the blaze lasted for days. But it was very beautiful at night. There hasn’t been a fire so close to the country before, so some people even suggested holding anniversary events for it, too.”
Kino quietly nodded again and again. “I see…”
As soon as she was back in her room, Kino stuffed the dry bread and canned sausages from the rations into her bag.
“Wh-what is it?”
“We’re leaving, now.”
Kino loaded her things onto Hermes, covered it all up with a waterproof canvas, and secured it tightly with rope.
Kino picked up her coat, hat, and goggles. She tightly fastened her belt and checked Cannon one more time.
“We might be in for another flood. We have to get out of here now.”
“What? But they said it was normal to get this much rain. Aren’t you overreacting?” asked Hermes.
“I just remembered,” Kino replied.
“Oh! What was it?”
“Back when we lived with Master, a lumberjack told me that a burnt-out forest can’t function anymore. That you should never stay downstream from a burnt-out valley. It’s because the forest can’t absorb water. So after a big fire, the streams dry out for a little while. But they’ll overflow their banks after rainfall. I can’t believe it took me this long to remember. I’m getting a bad feeling about this. Do you understand now, Hermes? We have to go.”
“I’m fine with that, but what about your weird three-day rule?”
“It won’t be much of a rule if no one’s around to keep it.”
“True. So survival—”
“You mean, ‘survival comes first’. Let’s go.”
Hermes lost his chance to finish.
Kino checked out of the hotel without explaining why.
Then she put on her hat and goggles, fastened the edges of her coat, wrapped a bandanna over her face, and rode through the rain.
As the storm continued, she raced towards the West Gate.
Even after leaving the walls, Kino continued without stopping until she reached the western edge of the hollow, making her way through the muddy roads.
The road soon diverged from the river and went uphill again.
“That should be good enough. We should stay away from slopes, too.”
Just as the road headed into a valley in the mountains, Kino climbed up a low hill and stopped Hermes under a large tree far from the road. She set up a temporary tent with the waterproof canvas and ropes, flattened out the grass, and then put up her single-person tent. She pushed Hermes next to it.
Kino hung up her soaked hat and goggles on Hermes. She wrung out her bandanna and wiped Hermes’ tank, and hung it on his handlebar.
Then Kino leaned against the tree and began eating the rations she received. Droplets of water fell from the branches on occasion, soaking into her coat and wetting her back.
“I hate rain.”
“Too bad. You could have been snug under a proper roof if you’d stayed. With white sheets and a warm shower, too.”
After lunch, Kino relaxed and looked around.
A dense mist obscured everything in the distance. Once in a while, large droplets of water hit the waterproof sheet overhead.
The rain continued into night. It knew no stopping.
The next morning, Kino rose at dawn.
The rain had stopped. Kino put on her jacket and held Cannon in her right hand as she crawled out of her tent.
“Good morning, Kino. You slept like a rock,” said Hermes.
Kino stretched. “Yeah. I really did.”
She cast her gaze at the world under the morning sun.
To the east was the hollow, and the round walls around the country. Inside, it looked like a gigantic muddy pond.
The world grew brighter and brighter, and the sun emerged completely. The country came into clear view. The rivers running from the mountains in the east had flooded, as had the streams in the country. The large buildings at the center seemed almost to be floating, while many of the houses were reduced to roofs.
“That’s a big one. You think it broke any records?”
“I knew it…” Kino muttered sadly. “They didn’t replace the gate since the previous flood, so I started to wonder. They kept all the canals and low levees exactly the same, too.”
“Maybe it’s reminding them of the flood from seven years ago. Or maybe helping them forget. Which do you think?”
“I don’t know.”
With the moist forest air around her, Kino took down the tent and the waterproof canvas.
She had her usual rations for breakfast, loaded her things, and started Hermes.
“Let’s get going,” Kino said, looking up at the green mountains, “This way should be all right.”
They set off again.
On the seventh turn on their way west on the muddy road, Kino slipped and tipped over.
“Hey!” Hermes complained, “I told you not to turn that hard in the mud. There’s not enough friction!”
“Never mind. Stand me back up.”
Kino pushed him up. Her left leg and arm, and the compartment on Hermes’ left side were caked with mud.
“How many times do I have to remind you? Did you forget already?”
“No,” Kino said, shaking her head and wiping away the mud with tree branches and leaves. “I thought maybe I could pull it off this time.”
Kino started Hermes again.
“It’s all right,” she said.
“I think I can do it next time.”
“I can make it.”
“I told you not to do it.”
“I’ve got the hang of it now. I’ll make it.”
“I can just focus on the front wheel.”
“All I have to do is turn in the other direction and—”
The motorrad continued making its way through the verdant forest.