* * *
Chapter 7: During the Journey
There was a deep, dark wood on a large, flat plain. Coniferous and deciduous trees made up the forest, which rippled in varying shades of green. Moss carpeted the ground where the sunlight did not reach.
A road cut through the forest, almost in a straight line. It was dirt-paved and bumpy, with dried-our remains of puddles gaping across the surface. Thick roots reached into the path as if to grab at the ankles of passersby.
It’s so rugged, said the motorrad. Compartments hung from either side of its rear wheel, and a large suitcase, a rolled-up sleeping bag, and a coat were secured to the luggage rack atop it.
But this is supposed to be a shortcut, said the rider. She was in her mid-teens, wearing a black jacket, a hat, and a pair of goggles. She had a thick belt around her waist, and the jacket was open to let in the cool early-summer breeze. Underneath, she was wearing a white button-down shirt.
A holstered large-caliber hand persuader was strapped to her right thigh. A small automatic persuader was strapped behind her back.
The motorrad proceeded at a cautious pace, avoiding the occasional obstacle as it made its way through the woods. The gnarled roots reaching into the path were even more of a hindrance because the road was so straight.
There was a strong gust; the forest shook. Leaves fell off the branches, two landing on the motorrad’s fuel tank and the rider’s head. They were quickly carried off again.
The rider looked up at the sky between the branches overhead. Small grey clouds were pushed into the distance in clusters.
The wind’s picked up, said the motorrad, It might start raining soon.
The rider replied, I don’t feel like getting soaked. She spotted a large tree and said, We’ll stop over there for now and pick up some firewood. They slowed down.
Another gust of wind shook the woods. The motorrad said, shocked, Wait, Kino. There’s a building nearby.
Kino pulled the brake. A building? You mean a house, Hermes? she asked.
If I had to say, it’s more like a school of a town office, Hermes replied.
Kino looked around. All I see are trees, she said. Where is the building?
Hermes replied, A little ways into the woods, on the right side of the road. The ground’s flat enough for riding all the way.
Kino made her way into the forest as she tried very hard to remain on the flat parts of the road.
The building was in the woods, hidden in the shadows of the trees.
It was long with two floors, built like a schoolhouse. Large, square stone foundations stood in perfect symmetry. At the center of the building was a wide doorway with a missing door, and a slight protrusion at the top that resembled a clock tower. Each side of the building contained two or three rooms.
The building was in terrible shape. The once-red roofs were now listing, the color almost scraped off. Rotting leaves covered it like sheets of brown and black. The dirty cream walls were covered in ivy, almost looking like hedges. The windows were all broken, reduced to empty black gaps.
A large tree stood next to the building, as though clinging to it and preventing it from escaping. The tree’s roots were digging deep into the foundation.
Kino and Hermes stood in front of the building.
It’s almost a ruin, Hermes said.
Kino disembarked and carefully propped up Hermes. What’s inside? she asked.
A few lizards, and a lot of bugs, Hermes replied.
Buffeted by the wind, Kino stepped in through the doorway. A short while later, she stepped back out.
What’s it like inside? asked Hermes.
Kino replied, The floor is tiled and still in good shape. The roof hasn’t caved in anywhere, either. We might as well make use of this place.
Yeah, Hermes replied, We can avoid the rain here.
Much further into the forest from where Kino and Hermes were, gutted wooden buildings were lined up by the thousands. But they were hidden completely from sight.
Kino started Hermes and drove into the building. Hermes’ headlight lit up the hallway, thick with dank air and the smell of dirt.
The hallway went in either direction. The roar of Hermes’ engine echoed all throughout the building. Kino turned left. The walls were blackened with age, the wallpaper peeling. A small, shattered dresser cast macabre shadows against the wall.
Kino took Hermes to a room she had checked earlier. The room, which might have housed a class of schoolchildren once, was at the rightmost corner of the building and furnished with nothing. A slight breeze blew in from the frameless windows, lifting fallen leaves into the air.
Parking Hermes just inside the door, Kino turned off the engine. Complete silence came over the room.
With a clatter, she propped up Hermes by his center stand. And she said to the empty room, “Thank you for your hospitality.”
Pale people were looking at Kino and Hermes.
They looked like faint blue lights, or perhaps pale mist. They were about the shapes and sizes of humans, but their faces only had eyes—no noses or mouths. Their eyes stared at Kino and Hermes.
About ten of them were in the room. Some were tall, and others were the size of children. They looked at Kino and Hermes as they stood in a circle around them.
Hermes mentioned that they should clean the room. Kino agreed. She rubbed the floor to see how dirty it was. When Kino moved to the center of the room, the pale people glided away as though scattering.
Let’s sweep away the leaves, Kino said, Give me a minute, I’ll go get some branches I can use as a broom.
Kino stepped out the door. The pale people all turned to her. Kino headed for the building’s other exit, an empty doorway at the end of the hall. The pale people made way for her in unison. And they silently followed her.
Standing inside the doorway, they watched Kino as she went outside.
Kino broke off a branch with leaves on it and returned, holding the branch under her arm.
Let’s get started, she said, sweeping the floor of her room with the branch. The pale people watched quietly and glided out of her way.
Kino gathered up the stray leaves and put the branch on top of the pile of keep them from scattering. Then she opened one of Hermes’ compartments, taking out the waterproof canvas she used as a makeshift roof on rainy days. She opened it up on the floor, which was now a little cleaner than before. She made space for her things in a corner away from the window and put down her suitcase and sleeping bag. The pale people continued to watch.
There. Much better than camping out, Kino said.
You said it, Hermes agreed.
Now I just need to find some firewood.
Kino took a sack from one of Hermes’ compartments and went out into the woods again.
When she returned, the pale people all turned to her. The sack was filled with dry branches and leaves. Kino took off her belt and black jacket.
You’re just in time, Hermes said. Kino nodded.
At that moment, droplets of rain began falling from the overcast sky. The droplets soon turned to veritable streams. Some of the pale people looked out the window.
The rain went on softly, endlessly, soaking the forest and the building. Some of the droplets hit the remains of the windows and bounced into the room.
Kino piled up the dry leaves and some of the kindling she found, putting it all in the center of the room. On top of it all, she placed a larger branch. The pale people watched her hands at work.
She took a box of matches from a pouch on her belt and pulled out a waterproof match. Carefully, she lit it, waited for the small flame to grow, and tossed it into the pile. The leaves and kindling and the firewood began burning, in that order. The fire soon came to life.
The small campfire crackled in the middle of the room. What little smoke it had given off at the very beginning trailed off outside, leaving a faint white tail.
Kino took out two metal U-shaped frames from her things and put them together into a small scaffold to place over the fire. On top of the scaffold, she placed a worn metal mug filled with water.
She took a seat at the edge of the canvas, with her feet pointing at the campfire.
It’s a little early, but I think I’ll have dinner, she said, taking out some rations from her suitcase. The rations were wrapped in paper, and shaped like long rectangular pieces of clay. Kino did not unwrap them. Instead, she took out a can of food. It was large and flat, with the half-peeling label decorated with a picture of a cow.
Kino took out her utility knife and picked out the can opener. She cut the lid open and folded it upwards without removing it from the rest of the can. The pale people peered into the can from behind her. Inside was ground beef and a generous helping of garlic crumbs.
The water in the mug started to boil. Kino put on a thick glove and quickly switched out the cup for the can. She shifted the firewood slightly to make sure it wouldn’t burn the canned food.
Then Kino went to Hermes and took out a square tin from one of the compartments. It was an airtight container divided into two, one side packed with tea bags and the other with sugar cubes.
With her left hand, Kino plucked out a tea bag and put it into the hot water. Color spread into the mug. Then she dropped a sugar cube inside.
Outside, the rain continued. It sounded almost like a piece of cloth being pulled taut. A thin mist obscured the details of the trees.
It’s so nice to have a roof over our head, Hermes remarked. Kino agreed. And slowly, as the pale people watched, she took a sip.
When the beef started to boil, Kino adjusted the fire again. She took several more sips of tea before reaching for the can, smiling. With a gloved hand, she lifted it off the scaffold by the lid.
Kino took out a small folding spork from one of her pouches. She stuck the forked end into the can. The pale people watched her bring the ground beef into her mouth. Ow, hot, Kino hissed.
Why am I not surprised, Hermes groaned.
Inside the room were Hermes, the waterproof canvas, and Kino with her second cup of tea.
The campfire was burning out, and the empty can was lying next to it. It was still raining outside.
Inside the room were the pale people. Like shadows, or phantoms in the mist, they watched Kino and Hermes happily make plans for the next day.
The rain continued past sunset. Darkness was swallowing the woods.
Kino pulled out Cannon, the .44 caliber revolver she wore on her thigh. When the pale people saw the glinting weapon, they flinched with wide eyes.
Kino cocked the persuader. The pale people trembled. Each time she checked the persuader with a metallic noise, the pale people shook.
Still holding Cannon, Kino untied her sleeping bag. She opened the zipper and spread it over the canvas. The pale people standing there quietly made way.
Making her makeshift bed by the wall, Kino went to the small, dying fire. She scattered the burning branches to extinguish it completely.
The room soon went completely dark. The windows were all that remained, framing the grey world outside.
Kino went to her sleeping bag. She lay down, fixed her boots to the sleeping bag, and rolled up the head cover to use as a pillow. Her right hand remained outside, holding Cannon.
Aren’t you going to get cold there, Hermes asked. Kino replied from her sleeping bag that the rain would not let the temperature fall any more.
See you tomorrow, she said, closing her eyes and quickly falling asleep.
Even in the darkness, the pale people remained with their faint glow. They continued to watch Kino and Hermes.
That night, the rain stopped and the wind carried the rest of the clouds away.
A sparkling sea of stars emerged over the building, but no one was watching.
When day broke, the moist air regained its original tint.
Kino opened her eyes.
A pale, faint light was spilling in through the windows. Nothing had changed from the previous day.
As the pale people watched, Kino rose and stretched, still holding Cannon. She put on her belt and jacket.
When Kino went to the windows, the pale people made way for her. The forest was steeped in a silent morning mist, completely opaque past the fourth layer of trees. Birds were chirping.
Kino stepped out of the building. She did light exercises on the ground outside her room, and did marksmanship drills with Cannon. The pale people crowded the windows to watch.
She returned to her room and took a seat on the canvas.
It was bright now, both inside and out. As the pale people watched, Kino took Cannon apart, cleaned it, and put it back together. She did the same with her other persuader, which she called Woodsman.
Kino rebuilt the campfire and lit it. She brewed tea as she did the previous day, and this time ate her rations.
Then she started packing. She put away the scaffold, dismantled it, and gave her mug a wash. She wiped her face with a wet cloth and checked the edges of her shirt.
Just as Kino rolled up her sleeping bag and tied it to her suitcase, the sun emerged. Beams of light drew long lines through the trees.
Kino smacked Hermes awake.
Good morning, he said.
Great weather today, Kino replied, to which Hermes answered, But the road’s gonna be muddy.
Kino agreed, saying, I want to find a river soon and bathe and wash my clothes.
After loading her things, extinguishing the fire, and burying the empty can in a pile of leaves, Kino took one last look at the room with the pale people.
All set, she said, putting on her hat and goggles.
Kino climbed atop Hermes and stepped on the kick starter. The roar of the engine filled the room, escaping through the windows.
The pale people watched Kino and Hermes. She leaned forward to raise the center stand. When the motorrad moved forward, the pale people stepped back in unison.
With her left foot on the ground, Kino leaned to the side and pressed the gas lever. Hermes’ rear wheel began to spin, turning him to the side. The motorrad drove down the hall lined with pale people and left through the main entrance. It emerged into the woods.
Kino looked back. Pale people packed every window and doorway, watching her and Hermes.
Let’s get going, she said. Hermes agreed.
Kino took one last look at the building.
“Thank you,” she whispered, and turned to go on her way.
The motorrad slowly made its way down the muddy road. The pale people watched, waving.
In the forest was a collapsing building surrounded by trees and grass and ivy. The morning sun shone brightly upon it. Pale people stood at every window and doorway, watching Kino and Hermes leave as they waved.
They would continue to wave, on and on and on.
* * *
Chapter 8: A Blessing
-How Much Do I Pay For?-
My name is Riku. I am a dog. I have long, soft, white fur. I may always look like I'm smiling, but I was just born with this look; it doesn't necessarily mean I am happy all the time.
My owner is Master Shizu.
We were riding the buggy across a snow-covered plain. As usual, Master Shizu wore a green sweater and a parka. Over his eyes he wore a pair of tinted goggles. I looked ahead from the seat beside him.
The snow that had accumulated over the winter was already melting. It was no longer so deep, and the buggy no longer hit snowdrifts along the way. But still, all around us was flat whiteness. The sky was covered in dense grey clouds. The morning sun did not show itself.
We had started on what passed for a road on the snowy plains. Unfortunately, the buggy’s engine was in rather bad shape. Sometimes it slowed, and other times it spewed out black smoke or even nearly stopped.
Dismayed, Master Shizu operated the clutch and gear with extreme caution to make sure the engine would not come to a sudden stop. "I guess that's why proper maintenance is so important," he said, his breath puffing in the cold.
The buggy's front wheels plowed through the hardened snow, and the snow chains on the back tires dug into the soil underneath as we continued on north.
It was nearly noon when we caught sight of brown ramparts on the horizon. It was a large country that seemed to be floating over a sea of white.
The high walls of brown bricks encircled the country. Old-fashioned guard towers rose from the walls at regular intervals.
Master Shizu applied for entry at the equally old-fashioned gates. The guard asked him how long we were planning to stay.
Master Shizu answered that he would prefer to leave quickly, but that he did not know for certain how long our visit would be. "We will leave as soon as I get my buggy repaired. We have a schedule to keep, so I'd like to leave as soon as possible."
The guard suggested that we apply for a general ten-day visa instead of specifying a set number of days. Master Shizu followed the suggestion.
We rode the mud-covered buggy onto the country's roads.
It had been a long time since we had last come to such a prosperous and technologically advanced country. The streets were full of traffic. On either side of us were luxurious condos, with potted plants overlooking the streets from their balconies.
Ornate streetlights and trees lines the roads. Affluent people in tidy clothing stared as they made their way down the sidewalks.
The car repair shop that the guard directed us to was near the centre of the country, a fair distance from the residential quarter. We had the buggy checked as soon as we made it to the shop.
It was a simple repair job, but the mechanics had no idea how long it might take. They needed to replace a worn-out part of the engine. If a nearby warehouse had the part in stock, repairs would be finished by tomorrow morning. If it wasn't in stock, they would have to custom-order the new part, which would take two to three days. Master Shizu left the buggy in their hands and took down their contact information.
Master Shizu took his large black bag from the buggy and walked down the street. He soon stopped before a local hotel that the people at the repair shop had directed him to.
"I don't feel like staying in a place like this," he said, and turned away from the beautiful glass-covered building. He then looked around from the crossroads, searching for a cheaper place to stay.
Tall buildings were lined up in neat rows in the direction of the southern area. In the north, however, were smaller buildings huddled together in clusters. Master Shizu began to walk north.
We were soon greeted by a sight that could by no means be called clean. The road was narrow, and snow lined its edges. The houses were small and cramped, laundry hanging from their rooftops.
Master Shizu followed the chilly, deserted streets. Suddenly, someone came up from behind and stopped us, asking where we were headed.
The man who stopped us was a middle-aged, uniformed man, likely a police officer. He seemed surprised to see Master Shizu.
"A traveler, I see. You’re best off keeping your nose out of here."
The officer explained that the country's northern quadrant was inhabited by its poorest citizens—it was practically a slum district. He added that the people there of the lowest caste of the nation's caste system.
"A class system, you say?" Master Shizu asked quietly.
"You're not one of those pesky activists, are you?" the officer asked.
"That's fine, then. We sometimes get those freaks around here. People who look down upon our caste system, I mean. They call it a cruel and unforgivable system, but our nation has its own history and rules. No one likes being told what to do by outlanders."
"I see. I'm not particularly concerned about this nation. I'm merely looking for a cheaper place to stay during my time here, as I'm not one for luxury myself."
"You're a strange one. Do as you like. But let me warn you: the ones ahead of us are all dirt-poor and filthy. Most are unemployed, and half of them live off thievery and by selling off blood and organs. Be aware that law enforcement is practically nonexistent."
"Blood and organs…? I suppose they'd fetch high prices."
"Who knows? It's illegal to remove them from living people, but the higher-ups are regulars, if you know what I mean. They don't really enforce the law."
"Then what about artificial organs?"
"Sure, they're an option, but not unless you're really desperate. There's nothing like the real thing. That's probably why they're so expensive. People around here make money off 'em, and other people get a second chance at life with 'em. Watch your stomach around here, traveler."
Master Shizu thanked the officer, who gave him a bewildered look and disappeared.
The further north we went, the dirtier and more run-down the streets became. It was practically a different country than the nation's southern quadrant.
Master Shizu noticed a small alleyway that was relatively crowded. He walked in without hesitation.
Brown houses lined the messy, snow-covered streets. The sight of peeling plaster, broken bricks, and fallen buildings blended into an eerie atmosphere.
At intervals along the street were unwelcoming-looking shops with awnings before them. Women listlessly sat on their front porches, and men warmed their hands at a fire burning in a drum canister in the middle of the day. We stuck out like sore thumbs—children walking on dirty bare feet occasionally glanced in our direction.
Soon, Master Shizu was approached by a group of young men who obviously had no work, but a surplus of time and energy. They blocked our way and glared at Master Shizu, but the aftermath was just as I had expected.
Master Shizu did not even blink as he asked them for directions to an affordable hotel in the area. The men attacked him at once, and were knocked out with ease. In crime-infested areas like this, it was usually best to make a flashy show of strength in order to avoid trouble later.
Master Shizu asked the men for directions once again, and this time they personally led us to a nearby hotel. It was a small and messy establishment on the second floor of a restaurant, but the hotel was located in a relatively developed area of town.
The landlady led us to a tiny room containing nothing but a bed and a chair. The only source of heat was a small electric stove.
"Perfect," Master Shizu said to her.
Master Shizu returned to the room around evening. He told me that the owner of the repair shop was flabbergasted to hear that we were staying in a hotel like this.
Master Shizu took out his beloved sword from his bag. It was housed in a black scabbard. He slowly drew the blade. There wasn’t a single blemish on its surface. Master Shizu then sheathed the sword.
"I realize I am not likely to convince you," I began, "But must you really go, Master Shizu?"
It was a question I had asked many times before.
Master Shizu's answer was also one I had heard many times before.
He recounted his reasons—reasons he had told me many times before.
And with a practiced conclusion, Master Shizu ended the conversation.
I sighed and lay down beside the bed, just as a small knock sounded at the door. I had felt a vague presence in the hallway outside of us for some time now.
Master Shizu got off the bed and walked up to the door. He slowly opened it.
Outside was a young girl.
She was perhaps about twelve years old. Her long black hair was tied into pigtails.
She was wearing a purple, multilayered dress that was native to this country. And just like with the other people in the area, it was very messy. Even her shoes were worn and riddled with holes.
"What is it?" Master Shizu asked, surprised. The girl simply looked up at him for several seconds. She was so short that she only went up to his chest. The girl then showed us the large basket she carried on her back.
"Hello, sir. I gather and sell scrap metal. Do you have any to spare?" she asked quietly.
Master Shizu shook his head. "But I have a loudmouthed dog here, if you want to take him."
"That's terrible, Master Shizu," I complained.
"I'm kidding." Master Shizu then turned to the girl at the door. "We just arrived in this country. I'm sorry, but we don't have anything for you."
"I see…" The girl apologized and bowed her head.
Master Shizu shut the door. The moment it closed, I caught sight of the girl raising her head again. She was looking in this direction, and I could tell that there was a strange glint in her eyes.
She had a look of fierce determination. It wasn't the kind of expression I expected to see on a dirt-faced girl living in dire poverty.
The next morning, Master Shizu and I were having breakfast on the second floor. He was tearing off pieces of bread. I put my share on the floor in front of me and waited for him to finish eating. The street outside was bustling today. The sun was shining warmly over the ground.
The girl from yesterday walked into the restaurant. I looked at her.
She approached Master Shizu just as he finished his bread and started on his pea soup.
"Good morning, Master Shizu!" she said brightly and clearly, standing with her back to the sun. It was a complete 180 from her attitude the day before.
Master Shizu stopped and looked at the girl.
"My name's Rafah!" she said, and made a shocking proposal.
"Master Shizu, please buy me!"
Understandably, Master Shizu was taken aback. "What?"
"Please buy me, Master Shizu! I'll be glad to work for you!" Rafah smiled.
Master Shizu looked at Rafah curiously. There wasn’t a hint of hesitation in her eyes.
"I don't understand," said Master Shizu.
"I can explain! Master Shizu, you'll give me money, then I'll become your possession. I'll follow you on your travels outside the country. I'll do my best and work as your servant!"
"…I don't need a servant," Master Shizu said tersely, and returned to his breakfast.
Rafah pressed on, undeterred. "Please let me explain! I want to leave this country. Low-class people like me have to live in poverty for the rest of our lives. I can't go to school because I have to work and earn money. I'm sick of living like this. I want to get out of here, but I can't! People like us can't leave the country as we please. But if you buy me, Master Shizu, I'll become your possession, and I can leave the country with you!"
Master Shizu ignored her and focused on his meal.
"Please! Please buy me!"
"You won't regret it! I'm a hard worker!"
"I can cook for you! I'll do your laundry! I can sew really well!"
"And…it's a bit embarrassing, but since I'm a girl…if you want, Master Shizu, you can put your head in my lap and I can sing you lullabies!"
Master Shizu ignored all her offers and finished his breakfast.
He wiped his mouth and gestured at Rafah to stop following him around. He then asked the employee in the kitchen to borrow the phone, and made a call with the rickety machine on the wall.
I stopped mid-meal and looked up at Rafah. She crouched down in front of me.
"Hey, boy. What do you think I can say to make him buy me?"
I told her that I didn't know. If I did, things might have been much easier.
Master Shizu came back. Rafah stood up again and pointed to me.
"See? I just talked to your doggy here, and he smiled and agreed with me! Right, boy?"
Please don't put me on the spot like that.
"I was just born with this face. I'm not particularly in agreement at the moment."
"That doesn't matter! Please, take me with you. Please buy me!"
The people around us ignored the commotion Rafah was making in the restaurant and remained silent. Were they in agreement with her, or were they just unconcerned?
Master Shizu looked at me. "You can eat now, Riku. And as for the repair job…" He glanced at Rafah, then turned back to me with a look that was a mixture of 'I don't care' and 'I don't want to say this in front of her'. "They're going to take about two more days."
"So please! Buy me! Take me with you! Please!"
Rafah followed Master Shizu up the stairs, all the way to our door. Her high-pitched voice echoed through the hallway.
In the end, I had lost my mealtime. I took my food in my mouth and approached the room.
Master Shizu opened the door and looked back out towards me. "Riku."
"Yes, Master Shizu?"
"So your name's Riku, huh? It's nice to meet you, Riku, and you too, Master Shizu. So-"
"Take care of the rest."
Before I could ask any more, Master Shizu shut the door in my face and locked it from the inside.
"Tch." Rafah pouted from over my head. "Hey, Riku. How do you think I can get him to like me?"
I didn’t know.
"Stop smiling and answer me!"
"I'm not smiling."
Rafah told me that she had to work all day, so she had no choice but to leave. She then told me that she would come back as many times as it took to convince Master Shizu to buy her, and departed.
"I don’t care," Master Shizu said, once I entered the room and conveyed her message to him.
Master Shizu spent the entire day in the cold room. He sat in the chair and stared at the same point on the wall for long periods of time, and sometimes he drew his sword and stared at the blade. He did nothing else—not even go down for lunch.
I silently stayed with him, sometimes sitting and sometimes lying down. The sun continued to move, changing the shadows it cast from outside the window.
By evening, the sun began disappearing into the northwestern sky, filling the room with orange light.
"I just have to make it there…" Master Shizu whispered, speaking for the first time in half a day.
I said, "Then we should make sure the buggy is in perfect condition. We can't have it break down all of a sudden before we arrive."
Master Shizu laughed—bitterly. "That won’t be a problem. We can just wait for someone to attack us, and take their vehicle instead. It's all the same in the end. No one can complain."
"You can't stop me, Riku," he said gently.
"Good evening, Master Shizu! Have you decided to buy me now?"
Rafah came to see us again around dinnertime. The sun had already set; the streets outside were dark. In her basket was a meagre pile of scrap metal—the fruits of a hard day's work.
"Not yet," Master Shizu replied, not even looking at her.
"Then will you buy me tomorrow?"
"I don't know."
"That's fine with me! You can buy me tomorrow, or even the day after!"
"I don't care when you buy me!"
"But I don't have any time left today, so I'll come see you again tomorrow!"
"Good night, Master Shizu! You too, Riku!"
Rafah disappeared like the wind. Master Shizu continued to silently eat his dinner.
The next day was the third day of our stay.
As Rafah did not visit during breakfast, Master Shizu relaxed and took his time eating. He contacted the repair shop, and was told that the replacement part would be ready today; the repairs would be finished by tomorrow morning.
"So I guess we're leaving tomorrow morning."
I asked Master Shizu what we would do until then.
"Do we even have anything to do?" he replied.
Master Shizu returned to the room, and rested on his chair as he did yesterday. I could not tell whether he was dazed or deep in thought.
Soon, dark clouds covered the sky. It looked as though it would start snowing any moment. Master Shizu, however, remained seated on his chair like an elderly hermit, not even turning on the light.
He would have remained in that position all day if not for Rafah's visit around lunchtime.
"Hello, Master Shizu!"
There was a loud knock on the door, and the door opened before Master Shizu could even respond.
Rafah allowed herself in. Today, she was not carrying her uncomfortably large basket.
"I begged really hard to get the day off today!" she explained, without even being asked.
Master Shizu glanced at Rafah from the chair. He then began to ignore her.
"So now I can stay here all day! Please buy me, Master Shizu! Please! Get me out of this country!"
Rafah's demands continued. But Master Shizu remained lost in his own world, as if he had perfected a technique to ignore all that went on in the world around him.
For her part, Rafah went on talking tirelessly, making me wonder where all of her boundless energy came from. I looked upon them with astonishment and shock.
About an hour had passed.
"My parents have always been really poor. They couldn't afford to send me to school, so I can't find a good job. So I can only get poorer and poorer," Rafah said.
Master Shizu finally glanced in her direction.
"I want to ask you one thing," he finally said.
"Yes! What is it?"
"Do you have any family?"
Rafah's face suddenly lost its energy. "Yes," she answered, her tone dropping.
"What do they do?"
"My dad can't find any work, so he just lazes around all day. Mom's always really busy doing housework, and my younger siblings are all still too little to work. I'm the oldest of the seven of us."
"So you're the only one in your family who's earning any money?"
Master Shizu leaned on his chair for a moment, then stood. Rafah took a step back.
"Answer me honestly. If you were to disappear, your family would lose its only source of income. How will they survive?" Master Shizu asked clearly, meeting her eyes.
There was a moment of silence.
"Who cares? They'll find jobs somehow. They can work all day and not go to school, just like I'm doing now." Rafah replied brusquely.
"I see. In other words, you don't care what happens to your parents and siblings?" Master Shizu asked in a slightly sarcastic tone.
Rafah looked—no, glared—back. She nodded sharply. "Yes. As long as I'm happy, I don't care what happens to them. You have to make your own way in life, you know. I'm here right now because I want to reach for my dreams. That's why I'm asking you to buy me, Master Shizu. I'll never have another chance like this. so please…please buy me."
Rafah clasped her hands over her chest as if in prayer, and tightly shut her eyes.
"Stubborn kid," Master Shizu said. There was a smile on his lips. Who was he really talking about?
"How much?" Master Shizu asked.
"Huh?" Rafah opened her eyes, shocked.
"I said, how much do I pay for you?"
It took Rafah a rather long time to calm down. I did not know if the price she offered was cheap or expensive for human trafficking, but Master Shizu did not think on it and gave his answer.
We were told that Rafah would legally become Master Shizu's possession if he paid the fee to the town hall nearby.
Rafah asked us when we were planning to leave. Master Shizu told her that we were due to depart tomorrow afternoon. We would spend the morning getting the buggy back, shopping for supplies, and buying Rafah.
Rafah agreed, and we promised to meet up at the town entrance tomorrow afternoon.
Rafah went over the promise over and over again. "You have to keep your promise, okay? If you don't, I…"
"All right. I'm a man of my word. But try not to bring too many belongings with you," Master Shizu said.
"Don't worry, Master Shizu!” Rafah chirped, “I'm not going to bring anything with me!"
It was evening. I watched as Master Shizu polished his sword in the small, lamp-lit room.
"I'm glad we have a new traveling companion," I said.
Master Shizu looked up at me. "Riku. I'm going to abandon that girl as soon as we get out of this country. I don't care what happens to her afterwards."
"She'd die quickly. She's not a dog, Master Shizu."
"Then we'll abandon her at the next country we reach. She'll be able to make a living somehow, even if it’s housekeeping work. As long as she works hard and luck is on her side, she'll be able to make a good life for herself."
"But Master Shizu, the next country is…" I said tentatively. Master Shizu's eyes widened.
"I'd forgotten… What am I doing…?" He shook his head, astonished.
"How about we take a short detour to drop her off someplace, Master Shizu? It would delay our plans, but…" I suggested tentatively, knowing that it would fall on deaf ears.
"I can't do that. …When the time comes…I'll leave it to you, Riku."
The next morning, the sky was cloudy. Master Shizu and I headed for the repair shop to pick up the buggy. They gave us the fixed buggy and the worn-out engine part.
We then bought food and supplies in the southern district, a world apart from the northern area where we had stayed. Master Shizu silently picked up more supplies than usual.
We reached the village entrance. Rafah was not alone. She was accompanied by what looked to be her family—a young mother and father, and six younger siblings.
Rafah gave us a happy wave. But her parents and siblings were quietly crying. They asked nothing of us, nor did they blame us. They simply watched as she left their presence.
"Goodbye," Rafah said, and took my passenger seat. She was wearing her usual purple dress. But otherwise, she really had come with nothing. I surrendered the passenger seat and retreated to the luggage hold in the back.
"Is this really all right?" Master Shizu asked.
"Yes. Let's go. The town hall's first," she replied.
Master Shizu turned away from her weeping family and started the buggy.
We went through immigration procedures at the gates. The guard was shocked to see Rafah.
"Traveler? Why is a dirty lowe-class girl—"
"I have my reasons," Master Shizu answered. Rafah showed the guard her own receipt in turn. "That's right. I'm Master Shizu's possession now. Is there a problem?"
"No, but…" The guard shook his head.
We had just stopped by town hall to buy Rafah. The employee looked shocked by the amount of money Master Shizu paid.
"This is my address. Please make sure to tell my family that I've been sold. Please," Rafah had said. The man at the desk did not say anything else.
The gates slowly opened.
The heavy doors gave way to the sight of a snow-covered horizon.
Rafah stood up from her seat, captivated by the wondrous sight. She then stopped in place as though frozen.
Outside the country's walls were a snow-covered plain. Winter was almost at an end. The snow would soon melt, and grass would cover the lands in verdant green.
We drove out the gates. Master Shizu expertly put the snow chains on the tires, as Rafah looked out at the white fields under the grey skies. The gates closed behind us.
"Aren't you cold, dressed like that?" Master Shizu asked, putting on his parka.
Rafah replied that she was used to the cold, adding, "Let's hurry! We have to get out into that plain, where we can't see the castle walls! Quickly!"
Master Shizu started the buggy. The engine ran smoothly, no longer spouting black smoke.
The buggy drove onward.
It was not long afterwards.
The buggy had not been going for long. We had gone far enough for Rafah's homeland to have disappeared out of sight beyond the horizon.
"Please, stop," Rafah said suddenly.
"Huh?" Master Shizu looked to his right. Rafah looked to her left.
"Please, stop the buggy."
He did as she asked. We were in the middle of the snow fields, in the centre of the horizon that encircled us.
"What is it?"
Rafah did not answer; she simply stepped off the buggy. She quietly walked upon the snow field, leaving her footprints behind her.
She then stopped. She stood on the field with her back to us. If a bird were to pass by overhead, it would only see a buggy and a young girl standing a short distance away.
"How long are you going to stand there? We're going to leave you behind," Master Shizu said, putting on his goggles. But he didn't sound at all angry.
Rafah turned to face us. Her pigtails shook.
She then smiled.
"Yes. That's what you're going to do."
Master Shizu, confused, said something he had said to her before. "I don't understand."
"I'm going to die soon," Rafah replied.
Master Shizu cut the engine. The sound of the buggy soon disappeared from the windless plain.
"It's because I'm going to die soon," Rafah repeated.
Master Shizu stepped off the buggy and approached Rafah. She explained everything. I listened from the buggy.
"I sold my organs at the hospital this morning. I'm being supported by some weird machines inside my body right now. And they told me that the machines and the painkillers won't last more than half a day."
"Why would you do that?"
"I needed the money. The money I earned from my organs, and the fee you paid to purchase me—it was much higher than the regular market value. And my family's going to get it all."
"Then what happens?"
"That's a huge amount of money. It's enough to feed my family for the next few years. My siblings can all go to school now. they won't have to work like I did. They can graduate from school and find better jobs. And they'll have much better lives."
Master Shizu was silent.
"And I got to see the world outside for the first and last time. I've always wondered what it was like out here."
Rafah again looked towards the distant horizon. Master Shizu stood beside her and looked in the same direction. They stood side-by-side, their backs turned towards me. The tall Master Shizu, and Rafah, who didn't even reach his shoulders.
"In other words," Master Shizu said, "you tricked me. You made me waste my money on this."
"Yes. I'm sorry," Rafah replied, eyes refusing to waver.
"You’re not, are you?"
"Nope. Not at all."
I heard a small, bitter chuckle. It must have been Master Shizu.
"You're going to die soon, too, Master Shizu. Right?"
They continued talking, standing side-by-side on the snow-covered plains. I watched them from atop the hood of the buggy.
"That's what you said, right? I heard everything."
"You mean, when I was arguing with Riku on my first night here? I guess I did."
I'd heard it too.
"I heard you say, 'There's something I have to do, even if I have to die for it'. That’s when I realized that a way like that even existed. I knew that even I had that option. So I decided to go through with it. That's why I decided to trick you."
"This was what I was meant to do. Master Shizu. You gave me this first and final chance—the one chance for me to create my own destiny."
Rafah then looked up at Master Shizu and smiled.
"And it worked."
"All's well that ends well," said Master Shizu.
"What does that mean?"
"It's a saying in my hometown. It means that your methods or reasons don't matter, as long as things work out in the end. The last thing you ever accomplish decides the worth of your life—it might be slightly different, but it sounds about right."
"Now that I think about it, I think it would be really fun to live and travel with you, Master Shizu. But you're going to accomplish your goal and die in the next country, right? So that's not possible. It's not an option, for either of us."
"That's right. It's impossible."
"Then I think it's best to say goodbye here."
"Um, there's one last thing… My stomach's started hurting a little. It's kind of stupid to say this now, but I'm really scared of pain. So Master Shizu?"
"Yes… I understand."
Rafah nodded slightly, satisfied.
She then looked out into the snow-covered fields.
It was a bleak landscape of endless white.
"The outside world is so beautiful, Master Shizu."
"Yes. Maybe you're right."
"I wonder…are there places even more wonderful than this?"
"I'm not sure."
Rafah nodded. "Me neither."
She then turned to Master Shizu. Master Shizu turned to her.
Rafah softly reached out to Master Shizu's cheeks.
"I'll pray that you accomplish your goal, Master Shizu."
"I'll make sure I do. I’m ready to do what I have to do. Even if the gods don’t offer any help," Master Shizu replied.
"Could you crouch down a bit?" Rafah asked. Master Shizu knelt on the ground. Rafah closed her eyes and softly kissed him on the forehead.
"It's a blessing," she said, embarrassed. She then spoke her final words.
"I'll be waiting."
"All right." Master Shizu nodded.
Master Shizu knew ways to inflict unimaginable pain upon a man before killing him.
He also knew ways to do just the opposite.
Master Shizu placed Rafah's body upon the snow, knelt beside it, and closed his eyes.
I jumped off the buggy and went to his side.
Master Shizu opened his eyes and looked at me. He then looked at Rafah, who slept before us.
"What a wonderful smile. I hope I can die like this too."
Master Shizu wore a peaceful smile—one that I had never seen before. It was wonderful, just like the one Rafah had departed with.
The sound of a shovel digging into the muddy ground resounded across the windless plain.
It soon turned into the sound of the ground being covered again.
Master Shizu returned to the buggy, carrying a dirt-covered shovel. I had never seen him cry until now, and I still did not see him do so.
He fastened the shovel back in the luggage hold and took the driver's seat. He then turned to me, standing on the snow beside him.
"Looks like she managed to do this before I could. And there's no way I can't do what she has. I'd be a fool if I couldn't. Let's get going, Riku," Master Shizu said cheerfully, putting on his goggles.
"Let me ask you again, Master Shizu. Perhaps you could reconsider?"
"There's no time. We'll just make it if we leave now. The buggy's in good shape, too."
Master Shizu started the engine.
I looked up at Master Shizu. He looked ahead.
"What are you going to do, Riku? Are you going to say goodbye to me, too?"
"No, Master Shizu. I will follow you to the end."
"Then come on up."
I jumped onto the hood and took my place in the passenger seat. And I looked ahead, as I always did.
Master Shizu reached out with his right hand and gave me a pat on the head.
We rode the buggy across the snow-covered plain, the clear sound of the engine echoing across the fields.
The buggy's front wheels plowed through the hardened snow, and the snow chains on the back tires dug into the soil underneath as we continued on north.
To Master Shizu's hometown, the land of carnage.
—Road to "Colosseum"
* * *
Epilogue: A Vow・A
-A Kitchen Knife・A-
Day XX of Month XX of the Year XX.
Today is the most unforgettable day of my life.
The most wonderful, most beautiful day. What could possibly be better than this?
I am infinitely grateful for the chance to record my thoughts like this now, as the day comes to a close. This journal is mostly about trivial things, so I don’t know if I can express everything I feel properly today.
But I know that in twelve years, I’ll remember this day clearly. No, in fact, reading this entry will be enough to let me relive this joy. I am writing to remind myself of the most marvelous day of my life.
How do I describe this happiness?
My daughter was born today.
It was around evening when I got the news and headed to the hospital.
The first I saw of her, she was sleeping soundly in her little basket. So small and delicate, but that was all I could make out before my eyes went blurry with tears.
My wife was lying in the bed next to her, smiling when she spotted me cry. She was exhausted from the labor, the hardest work in the world, but her smile was radiant. I desperately tried to swallow my tears as I gave her a kiss. How could I repay her for this incredible work? Or our daughter, for that matter?
Today, I received the greatest treasure of all. The most beautiful blessing in the world, sharing my wife’s blood and mine. A blessing I wouldn’t exchange for anything.
I swear here and now that I will devote all I am to this baby—everything I can muster, until the end of my days.
Her happiness will be me and my wife’s happiness. We will always be on her side. Even if it means turning the world against us, even if it means sacrificing everything we have, we will stand on her side to the end.
She’ll become just as beautiful as her mother, I’m sure. And just the thought of watching her grow, day after day, is indescribably moving. I am the happiest man in the world.
Someday, our daughter will be old enough to help us with our work. I wonder if I’ll cry when she gets married? Damn it, I finally understand why my father-in-law was wailing at the wedding. I feel sorry that I ever thought he was an overly sentimental old man. (I should apologize to him when we go to show him his first granddaughter.)
Every day will be wonderful. Two have become three, and we will live out our days in happiness. Today, all our misery turned to joy. And I know that everything will be all right in the future.
I have tomorrow off, so I’ll head to the hospital to have a good look at our baby daughter (not that I couldn’t later, of course.)
We’ll discuss the baby’s name then. We’d thought of a few boy’s and girl’s names, but none of them stood out to us.
But on the way back from the hospital today, I was struck by inspiration. I happened to overhear a conversation by people who seemed to be immigration officers.
They were talking about the red flowers that come into full bloom outside the walls at this time of year. They say they’re a vivid red and stretch on to the edges of the horizon. But the flowers only bloom for a short time, they say.
My wife and I have never seen the flowers, and we never will. Nor will our daughter.
But I think we will name her after that flower. I’m sure my wife will like it.
Each year, on our daughter’s birthday, the flowers will cover the world outside, almost like a blessing.
The name of the flower, they said, was—