The train arrived at the station, and I thought, this didn’t seem like the countryside.
There were various souvenir stores in the huge station, and one could see a large shopping mall outside the station. There were also a lot of people moving around, so it’s not outlandish to say that it’s a big city.
Mizuto called it ‘The Countryside’, but maybe that was a hyperbole, right?
So I wondered for a mere moment until I got onto the bus.
With a whoosh, the doors were shut.
There weren’t any other passengers aside from the four of us.
It’s noon, and this was the case?
I looked out the window, and the presence of human civilization slowly faded away. The buildings too gradually faded, and all I could see within my eyes were countless pylons connected to power lines, whistling past one another.
We entered the hills, and the greenery around us got thicker. The only thing left with a trace of human civilization was the bus we’re on, down the boring country road.
Once the bus arrived at the station, uncle Mineaki said so, and the bus driver lifted his cap slightly. It seemed they knew each other.
The bus left, and right before our eyes was a vast field.
There wasn’t a roof at the stop, but a shade covered by lush tree branches. The branches swayed in the breeze, and the sun shone through the gaps, scorching my eyes relentlessly..
—Chirp chirp chirp chirp chirp chirp chirp…
Once the bus engines couldn’t be heard, what replaced it was the chirpings of the cicadas.
We’re basically in an isekai.
I was a little uneasy about whether I could return safely to the world I was familiar with.
“Woah—! Yume, lookie look! The bus arrives three times a day!”
Mom made some noise once she saw the completely tattered bus schedule. She’s not acting like a middle-aged woman at all.
Uncle Mineaki smiled,
“It’s good enough to have one service in the morning, one in the afternoon, and one in the evening. It’s not profitable to send a bus to such a rural area.”
“Then what do you do when you need to buy something?”
“There are a lot of elderly people here after all, and the city stores are told to by the town council to distribute the supplies together. And these days, even the elderly can shop online. If that’s not enough, we need to drive .”
“I feel sorry for the kids who can’t drive, since they need to return before the last ride. Well, it’s a nice place to relax, if just for a few days.”
Uncle Mineaki said “Let’s go” and started to walk. It seemed to be a long walk from here to the residence of uncle Mineaki’s mother—Mizuto’s grandmother.
I was about to grab my carrying suitcase, but a hand next to me snatched it before I could.
“Ah, wait …!”
My little stepbrother Mizuto Irido acted as though he didn’t hear that as he grabbed my suitcase.
Seriously, what’s he doing …! Grabbing my luggage like that!?
I gave chase and wanted to grumble—but I swallowed my words right when I was about to cry out.
Why, you ask?
There’s a very steep slope in front of us.
Mizuto dragged the suitcase up the slope without saying a word.
It should be very tiring, but he didn’t look like he was struggling at all, and had a calm and relaxed expression.
If there’s a reason, tell me beforehand!
We reached the top, and so I and mom were astounded by the gates before us.
Was this the house of Mizuto’s grandmother? No…it’s more like a mansion, right?
I stared in awe at the white walls and magnificent eaves that were more than 50 meters wide.
“Wait, is your family really rich, Mineaki-kun…?”
“No no no, the only ones rich were those of my grandfather’s generation. It’s said that he never intended for his children to have an inheritance—they were all basically donated, so this house is the only thing left.”
“Eh~…that’s a pity …”
“Seemed like mom and uncle left home immediately, and they didn’t complain about it.”
Speaking of which, I remembered that Mizuto worked hard to be a specially enrolled student so that he could lower the school fees.
I discreetly glanced aside at my little stepbrother, and he was staring at the sun in annoyance.
“It is. Let’s hurry in.”
Uncle Mineaki crossed the front yard and rang the doorbell at the entrance. There was an electronic beep from this antique-looking mansion, and it felt a little amiss to me.
“Yes yes yes …”
The sliding door opened with a clatter, and appearing from beyond was an old granny in an apron.
I assumed for a moment that she was a servant, but her eyes sparkled immediately the moment she saw Mizuto.
“Ooooh~! Isn’t this Mizuto! You’re all grown up!”
Mizuto lowered his head slightly and greeted her.
“Uhahaha” The old woman heard Mizuto’s greeting, laughed loudly, and said,
“You’re so cold as always! You can’t get a girlfriend like that!”
“Mom. I thought you said you didn’t want to be an old woman who always talked about marriage all the time?”
“Oh, oh, oh. Yes, indeed. Dangerous.”
“I’m Natsume Irido.”
She ushered us through the foyer, stopped at the step, and bowed politely, giving her name,
“My sincerest apologies for introducing myself so late. This stupid son of mine mentioned his remarriage so suddenly…”
“It wasn’t too sudden. I told you two weeks in advance.”
“That’s not sudden enough?”
I nodded quietly. And Mizuto, who was on the other side of the room, also gently reacted the same way as I did.
Although I understood that they only told us of the remarriage at the last moment because we were busy preparing for exams, I felt there was a better way of doing this.
…But well, I always felt that situation would be worse if we knew of their remarriage before we broke up.
“Mom, I’m sorry! In fact, Mineaki and I hesitated until the last moment…”
“it’s fine, Yuni-san. I was more than glad that you gave this child a goal to remarry. Thank you very much.”
“No no no, you’re too kind!”
Bowing deeply again was Natsume-san—or should I call her step-grandmother. Mom hastily waved her hands once she said that.
Speaking of which, I haven’t heard how mom and uncle Mineaki met and fell in love…my guess was that it must have been quite the hardship.
“Then, this is Yume-chan, right?”
I noticed Natsume-san give me a look, and instinctively straightened my back.
“My name is Yume Irido. I shall be in your care for the following days.”
“How polite of you. You seem like a serious kid. Do you get along with Mizuto?”
“Better than our relationship, right Yuni-san?”
“Really really! Mizuto-kun’s really kind to her!”
“Mizuto was kind? Oh my~”
Natsume-san smiled gently.,
“It does feel strange to have a big granddaughter all of a sudden. It feels like my grandson has married and returned.”
I froze, and mom let out a mischievous laugh.
“How about it? Do you want to marry Mizuto-kun?”
“N-not at all. We won’t get married …”
“Just kidding! Just~kidding~!”
That’s bad for the heart ….
For the time being, I glanced aside at Mizuto, but I merely saw the usual poker face, and I couldn’t understand what he was thinking at all.
It’s better than looking all gaudy and flustered, but I felt strangely peeved for some reason.
“Everyone’s tired, no? Come in, come in. Mineaki, did you have lunch?”
“We ate on the way here.”
“So I see. Put the luggage there then. Mineaki, lead the way.”
“I know. Come here.”
We took our luggage to the corridor, separated from Natsume-san, and followed uncle Mineaki’s lead.
The mansion was so big that we could get lost walking alone, and at the same time, the house was so old that it creaked every time I stepped on it.
“Is your mother from Kansai?”
“Her dialect’s influenced by my father. He’s born and raised in Kyoto after all.”
Mom and uncle Mineaki chatted, and at the same time, I was touched to see a veranda facing the front garden. The Iridos had a vestibule at home, but I had only seen such an authentic veranda in TV dramas. It feels a bit like the house of the Inugamis…
“Mizuto and I will be there, and you will be in the room next door.”
“Put your bags away and go to the Buddhist altar.”
I was assigned a room with Mom, and Mizuto with uncle Mineaki, probably because they were concerned about the feelings of us children.
I entered the tatami-matted room, took out a change of clothes from the suitcase, “Haa~” and mom suddenly let out a long sigh.
“Thank goodness mother-in-law is a nice approachable person~. I was worried if she was a harsh and strict old person ……”
“You never met Natsume-san before, mom?”
“We chatted a little on the phone, but that’s about it.”
“Thank goodness …”
Mom collapsed on the floor, looking exhausted.
It seemed she was really nervous just now, so that was a surprise. But after all, it’s true that being accepted by the in-laws is a matter of life and death.
To this family, we are a foreign species..
Speaking of which, was it really okay for me to come here without thinking about it …?
“I heard relatives will gather in this house, right? How many will come?”
“Hmm~? I heard it’s mostly the Tanesatos.”
“That’s the old family name of mother-in-law. I heard uncle Mineaki say that she has an older brother, and a few descendants will be visiting.”
Mom’s mother-in-law’s older brother…so my grandmother’s brother? How should I address them? His children and grandchildren—I guess. What’s my relationship with them? I didn’t know if they’re of the same age though…
“Yuni-san~, Yume-chan~. To the Buddhist altar—”
“Okay~. Let’s go, Yume!”
We pulled the shoji aside and met up with Mizuto and uncle Mineaki.
Mizuto still looked dumbfounded while he followed uncle Mineaki…had he said a word since he came to this house?
We passed through the creaking corridor and arrived at the room where the Buddha’s shrine was located.
After all, Obon’s happening soon, and we would be visiting graves. But Mizuto’s mother’s tombstone wasn’t here, so maybe we would pay her a visit when we returned.
“This is the place.”
Uncle Mineaki stopped and reached for the shōji in front of him.
But at that moment, the shoji opened itself.
Appearing from beyond the shoji was a young female.
She’s a woman with red-rimmed glasses, taller than me by about ten centimeters. She looked like a college student. Her dark hair fell gently down her shoulders, giving off the air of a bookstore clerk or librarian.
I sensed an aura similar to mine, and couldn’t help but feel a sense of familiarity. And at that very moment—
“—Isn’t this Mizuto-kun~! It’s been a long time~!!!”
She suddenly shouted happily, and hugged Mizuto tightly.
It was so sudden that my brain couldn’t keep up.
The first impression of a bookstore clerk and librarian instantly vanished. She sounded more like a party girl…! The aura of this cheerful character is three times brighter than Akatsuki-san!
More importantly, this skinship is excessive, isn’t it?
It’s the first time I saw anyone greet with a hug. An American? Is she American?
“Ohhh, Madoka-chan? It’s been a while.”
“Same to you, uncle Mineaki! It’s been a while ~!”
The girl called Madoka hugged Mizuto and happily greeted uncle Mineaki.
…How long was she going to hug Mizuto? She might be a relative, but he really hated having someone cling onto him, let alone hug. If it were me, he would have pushed me away and ignored me without a word—
“It’s been a while, Madoka-san.”
He made a sound while he was being hugged tightly, although it was a bit stiff. I turned my head in astonishment.
He never uttered a breath ever since he arrived at this house!
“Nihihi, I’m relieved~. You’re still so cold this year too! I was wondering how to respond if you changed once you had your high school debut ~!”
“High school isn’t a place to debut in.”
“Ooh, you said it ~”
He actually answered her question!?
And did he just dismiss everything I did!?
Madoka(?)-san let go of Mizuto, and turned to look at mom and me.
“Uncle, are they…”
“Ahhh. Let me introduce them to you. This is Yuni-san who remarried me, and this is her daughter Yume. They now have taken up the family name Irido.”
“I’m Yuni Irido~”
Through the red-rimmed glasses, I could feel her appraising eyes, not at mom, but at me. W-what’s going on …?
“And over here are.”
Uncle Mineaki pointed towards Madoka-san,
“My uncle’s grandchildren—I suppose they should be considered Yume-chan’s stepcousins?—Madoka Tanesato-san, and Chikuma Tanesato-kun.”
I was incredulous by the mention of a second name, and a little head peeked out from behind Madoka Tanesato-san’s long skirt with trepidation..
At first glance, I thought that was a girl, but since uncle Mineaki addressed him as ‘kun’, he’s probably a boy.
He seemed to be a kid attending upper elementary school. He’s very thin, and looked like a cute, mini Mizuto. His eyes wavered beneath his long bangs, and he seemed to be at a loss on what to do.
The moment the boy Chikuma met me in the eyes, he hid behind his sister.
He seemed to be a really shy person.
No doubt about it this time. I felt a real sense of familiarity in my heart.
I recalled that in the past, I did hide behind my mother, just like him..
“Ah, sorry. He’s a little shy ~”
“it’s fine it’s fine ~. Yume’s like this too until recently. Right?”
“…Mom, don’t just say it out openly.”
“Ah, sorry sorry.”
Why’s it that all parents would easily divulge the private matters of their children?
I went behind Madoka-san, squatted down before Chikuma, and met him in the eyes.
“Hello Chikuma. I’m Yume Irido. Nice to meet you.”
I tried to greet him as gently as possible…but Chikuma, whose face was very cute when I looked up close, went red immediately, and ran across the corridor.
He got away…
“Hm~. I see I see …”
Madoka-san continued to observe me with an appraising look.
“Erm, anything the matter…?”
“No, no… I see signs of hard work from you.”
“Ah, sorry! I don’t mean to underestimate you. I’m just really worried about how to deal with Mizuto-kun’s new sister if she’s a gal. I’m relieved to see you like this though, Yume-chan like this! As a relative, please take care of me in the future!”
Madoka-san grabbed my hands.
She’s praising me…right?
There’s nothing more to ‘as a relative’, right?
Was she trying to fend me off or something?
“Say, Yume-chan, aren’t our clothes choices a little similar? I feel a similar vibe ~”
Once I heard that, I checked Madoka-san’s clothing.
The color palette was light, and she chose a long, soft skirt for the bottom, while the top half was a large, waist-length tunic that was gently pinned to the inside of the skirt. This overall style is similar to the outfit I chose for Higashira-san a while ago.
And then I realized…she had a nice body.
She looked slimmer than Higashira-san because of her height, but her chest size should be comparable to Higashira-san, right …?
From up close, I could see the vague cleavage from the slightly open collar, and my heart too couldn’t help but race.
“I see…there is some similarity from what you say.”
“Right! I always like such clothes! My friends in college always say these clothes are childish, but I really think that the light and cute clothes are what girls really desire most. Don’t you think so too, Yume-chan?”
“Th-that’s true. I feel that’s cute too.”
I initially dressed up like that to suit the tastes of the guy next to me.
Madoka-san said that she always liked such clothes—so basically, she’s been wearing princess-styled fashion that doesn’t really reveal much, huh?
As the relative, Mizuto too probably grew up acquainted with this clothing style.
And that’s why he asked me to dress up like that.
I thought that Mizuto’s preference for innocent clothing was influenced by light novels and such….wait…maybe it’s actually because…
“It’s great to have someone I feel I can talk with! After all, there are no other young girls in our family. Let’s get along well, Yume-chan!”
“…Ah, okay. Of course …”
Speaking of which, I did hear a certain saying—
—Most boys will pick a certain big sister next to them as their first love.
The relatives’ aunts and uncles gathered in the evening, and a party was held at the house.
Naturally, the guests of honor were the new faces this year, mom and me.
“Did you get along well with Mizuto? It must be hard for you when he’s such a quiet boy!”
“No no no, they do get along unexpectedly well!”
“Really? That’s a relief to us then!”
This topic was discussed for the fifth time already.
I couldn’t do anything other than a smile with oolong tea in hand.
“Oooh! Madoka-chan, good going with the drinks!”
“As to be expected of the Tanesatos, even though you’re just 20 this year!”
“I’m just getting started—!”
In a party where a dozen adults or so were drinking heavily, Mizuto, Chikuma and I were the only minors.
I couldn’t keep up with their pace because of the overwhelming away game.
Is this the atmosphere of a beer party? Or maybe it’s because they’re relatives. Whatever the case, my experiences were so lacking that I couldn’t tell…
“But I too was sweating at the idea of a teenage boy and girl living in the same house.”
“Young people recently are more of the herbivore kinds.”
“Mine-kun, you’re mindset is outdated!”
“Yume-chan, don’t hold back now and eat away. Lookie look, there’s some sushi left!”
Amidst this chaotic party, I could only eat the food that piled up on my plate.
After a long while,
I suddenly felt a soft sensation on my back, along with a shrill cry.
“Yume-chan. You’re unfair~~!!”
She reeks of alcohol!
Madoka-san, pressing on my back, was hot and blushing all over, clearly in a stupor..
Speaking of which, I felt some shockingly great masses on my back! I could feel their weights even beyond the bra! They’re getting squashed on me, hey! Even as a girl, I too can’t help but feel my heart pound!
“Mizuto-kun~doesn’t care~about me~~ How did you~get along with him~ immediately, Yume-chan~?”
“It’s true! I’ve been taking care of him~since he was in kindergarten~!”
Next to me, Mizuto played dumb and ate his a sweet potato,.
Ignored her…? I remembered he was initially kind towards me though …?
“Mizuto’s basically a chip of the old block compared to our grandfather.”
Saying these words was the father of Madoka-san and Chikuma-kun. He’s of similar age to uncle Mineaki—probably in his forties. How should I call him?
“His quiet personality, his inexplicable stubbornness, and his love of reading are exactly the same. He always gives an impression that he will become a great man, and I’m a little excited to think about it.”
“Hey! Aren’t you excited for your own daughter!?”
“Say that to me when you’re not late for class, idiot bastard.”
“I’m not an idiot bastard—!”
I tilted my head.
“Our grandfather, as in…?”
“Basically, our great grandfather, the person who once owned this residence. Now…what’s the name again—?”
“The name’s Kousuke, Kousuke Tanesato.”
Uncle Mineaki didn’t appear to be drunk and answered so.
“His life sure was turbulent—but as a parent, I hope for my child to live a peaceful life though.”
“That’s good though. It’s a blessing to see him grow up healthy and safe…Mineaki-kun, you worked hard! You really did …!”
Uncle Mineaki smiled and received a sake cup from Madoka-san’s father,
Next to him, mom too showed a gentle and delighted smile.
“…After all, uncle Mineaki became a single dad right after Mizuto was born …”
Madoka-san muttered so, looking emotional.
“Grandma Natsume did try to help…but my guess is that those days were harsh …”
…It’s said that Mizuto’s biological mother, Kana Irido, had a weak constitution to begin with, and died soon after giving birth to Mizuto.
Uncle Mineaki was probably in his twenties back then…widowed as a young man, he protected and raised Mizuto by himself.
And once his own son finished compulsory education, he and mom got married….
I finally understood.
I understood why they remarried at that particular moment.
I understood why they hesitated until the last moment, and why we were kept in the dark.
I also understood why Mom and I were so unexpectedly welcomed.
Uncle Mineaki’s remarriage was proof that he overcame a major trial…
Thinking about it, I resolved myself again.
We had to keep this family right now until the end.
I came back to my senses, and saw Mizuto stand up, walk to uncle Mineaki’s back and call out to the latter.
“I’m done eating.”
“I’m off then.”
Mizuto immediately left the party and the room.
Where’s he going?
And why ‘thanks’?
“I won’t let you get away, Yume-chan!”
“M- Madoka-san…i-it’s heavy …!”
“Do you have a boyfriend~!? Surely you do right~? You’re so cute after all! If not, I’ll take that place then~!”
“Madoka’s quite a drunkard now.”
“As to be expected of our bloodline! Wahahaha …!!”
I let the hot water fall over my shoulders, and finally felt relieved.
I gazed aimlessly at the sight of the water vapor rising up toward the ceiling made of green tiles.
To be honest, I had relatives and occasionally met with them.
But it’s the first time I partook in such a large family gathering…and more importantly, it felt strange that I attended it with him.
…I never dreamed that I would one day meet his entire family when I dated him…
I never heard him mention that his great grandfather was a wealthy man, nor did I know he had a beautiful cousin like Madoka-san….
Speaking of which, it might be to be expected of Mizuto, but would anyone just slip out during a beer party?
I was done with my bath, and went towards the corridor.
After all, wouldn’t it be elegant to enjoy the night breeze after getting out of the bath and going into the corridor?
I could still hear the adults’ dinner party in the distance. Mom stayed for drinks after I retreated. It’s amazing how adaptable my mother was…
There was someone in the corridor.
Chikuma was sitting on the ground, facing the courtyard, holding a game console in his tiny hands.
A game console.
Oh yes. When we talk about boys his age, games would be the first thing that comes to mind. It’s no wonder that I was instinctively surprised to see him hold something other than a book, because of a certain person’s influence.
“Chikuma-kun, are you alone?”
Oh. He answered me for the first time, though he never took his eyes off the game console.
I was a little happy,
“Where’s your sister?”
“Ehhh~…I see …”
I heard that she just turned 20. Didn’t think she would drink as much as they would…
“My-my sister hugs me when she’s drunk …”
Ohh. Now he’s talking on his own.
“So you escaped here?”
“Had a bath?”
“I-I did …”
“I see. Should I call him over then …”
Natsume-san told me that once I was done with the bath, I should inform those who hadn’t. He probably never had his bath yet.
While I pondered over this, I noticed that Chikuma was staring at me intently.
“Ah, no, well, nothing…”
Chikuma-kun replied tentatively, and immediately pulled away from me.
Was he wary of me?
It’s to be expected. Even I would be wary if I was to suddenly learn that I had a female relative that I had never met.
I felt that I needed a common topic to open his heart, but he didn’t seem to be interested in reading ….
“…Say, Chikuma-kun. What do you think of him—no, Mizuto-kun?”
I started off with our mutual acquaintance. There wasn’t any other topic we could discuss, yes.
Chikuma squirmed fearfully for a while,
“Like say, he’s kind, or scary, or anything.”
After hesitating for a long time, Chikuma slowly spoke.
“…I don’t, really understand.”
“Is that so?”
“I-I hardly ever talk to him….he’s always in my great grandfather’s study.”
Great grandfather’s…I guess he’s always cooped inside, even at someone else’s house.
Chikuma-kun might be a little uneasy, for he said somewhat anxiously,
“…I think…he’s a little, cool …”
Chikuma-kun nodded bashfully.
“Because he can…just ignore everyone…I-I can’t do that at all …”
I understood his feelings all too well.
After all, I too harbored the same admiration back in middle school.
But in fact…he’s not perfect either. He also experienced failures.
“…It’s to be expected…”
“Ah, sorry. Just mumbling to myself.”
I dismissed the topic with a smile.
“Sorry to disturb you while you’re gaming.”
“Ah, it’s fine…”
“Then—oh yes, I’ll like to ask one more thing.”
I abruptly turned my head back like Ukyo Sugishita.
“Where’s the study?”
I still remember the first time I met him.
It was the day we were assigned to the same class— everyone in the classroom was trying to make friends, and he was the only one nonchalantly immersed in the world of books.
I was ‘Ayai’, and he was “irido’.
I was placed in the first row according to the fifty-syllable order of my family name, and whenever I saw him reading silently behind me, I didn’t feel that he was a “lonely person” at all, somehow.
Every time I looked back, I gained a little courage from him.
He made me realize that this was another way to live life.
He would never vainly connect with others, and would seemingly blend into the background, yet stubbornly seek his own world—people could somehow live in this manner.
Truth be told, it might be a psychological attempt to find someone inferior to myself so that I could feel better—but it was an undeniable fact that the existence behind me supported me throughout my entire life as a middle schooler.
At that time though, I never thought he would become such an important existence to me—
I followed Chikuma-kun’s instructions, and found the library at the end of the corridor.
It’s the old library of Kousuke Tanesato-san, Mizuto’s great grandfather—and at this point, mine too.
It’s said that for a long time, Mizuto would coop himself in this room whenever he visited this house.
Speaking of which, he did say that he would ‘spend his time reading’ …
The door wasn’t locked.
The gentle moonlight shone in through the door.
There were huge bookshelves on both sides of the study, like a cellar of books.
A lot of books couldn’t fit into the shelves, and they were lying messily on the floor, which meant that the already cramped room was even more so.
The only light sources in the room were an old light bulb on the ceiling, a lamp on the desk, and the moonlight.
And within this cave-like darkness—
— He sat quietly at his desk, as if he had blended perfectly with this light.
It was as though time in this room had rewinded by decades.
And Mizuto, immersed in this scene, almost gives the impression that he has spent decades in this room since the post-war period.
I hesitated repeatedly, wondering if I should call out to him, or if I should enter this study.
After all—this scenery was perfect.
This world was completely perfected with Mizuto’s existence alone.
And if an unnecessary hindrance like me was to enter, this perfect world might disintegrate—
Mizuto Irido was already completed from the very beginning.
He was lonely, proud, and created this full world alone. There wasn’t a space for anyone else to enter.
In that case.
In that case, why did you—
—Why did you let someone like me become your girlfriend?
At this point, looking back at my middle school days, everything felt like a dream.
The tenderness, smile, and bashfulness he showed to me alone…all seemed like a distant dream and a beautiful misunderstanding.
It was then that I realized.
He and I became family, and we lived together under the same roof, and I heard about him from relatives who had known him for a long time.
That was why I realized.
I felt that he was a unique person at that time.
From what I saw in his life, there were a few exceptions, irregularities in his life.
And that…I too was the same.
I felt that at that moment, I was one of the only exceptions in his life.
For both of us, the other was a special existence.
The scene laid out before me—was a sight I never saw back then.
One day, we were no longer unique, we returned to the ordinary.
The moment of passion ended on that day, and we were coldly revived in reality.
For that reason, I—
I concentrated, took a deep breath, just one…and entered the study through the door.
The distinct fragrance of old paper gently stimulated my nostrils.
The countless books lined up on both sides made me feel oppressed.
Was this the heavy weight of history…while I marveled at this atmosphere, Mizuto looked away from the books, and towards my face.
His voice was a little deeper than usual, and I tried to remain calm while recalling my objective.
“I’m telling you…to take a bath.”
“I see…it’s this late already…?”
Mizuto murmured with a sigh, and closed the book on the table.
It’s a somewhat weird book.
It looked like a hardcover, but there was no binding or any illustrations at all, just a title engraved on the cover.
I initially assumed it was a professional book, but it was a little too thin to be one. It wasn’t even 100 pages.
“You’re not using a bookmark?”
“It’s fine. I remember the contents of this book anyway.”
“After all, it’s impossible to find this book anywhere, and I revisit it every year I come here.”
“Is this book that precious?”
But it’s true this study had an impression that it would have some rare books worth hundreds of thousands of yen scattered around.
I suddenly felt a little nervous and started to pay attention to the books lying around. At the same time, I heard Mizuto’s reply.
“Well, it is precious…there’s only one such book in this world.”
“There’s only one book?”
“Basically, self-published…but it’s neither sold nor distributed, so I guess it’s more appropriate to call it a single published book”
Mizuto gently stroked the cover of the book.
I cautiously avoided the books scattered around my feet as I approached him, and saw an unfamiliar title printed on the cover.
“…’The Dancing Girl of Siberia’…?”
A single title in MS Mincho was printed on the cover of this book, and the author’s name couldn’t be found.
If we talked about ‘Dancing Girl’, the first to come to mind would be Ogai Mori, childhood friend of all language textbooks…but what about ‘Siberia’ …?
“What’s with this thin book?”
“This is my great grandfather’s memoir.”
“Fuu…sounds like an embarrassing interest, right?”
Mizuto showed a self-deprecating smile when he saw that I was a little flustered.
Speaking of which, I did hear that a few middle-aged and elderly folk would publish their memoirs using their own money…
“When I was a kid…probably in first grade, I found this book. It didn’t have a name, so it’s obviously suspicious, right. I opened this book—and then ever since then, I had a habit of reading it once every year.”
“…Is it that good?”
“Who knows? If I have to talk about how interesting it is, I don’t think it’ll be better than Keigo Higashino’s works. There wasn’t any furigana, and I was all confused back then, but… I didn’t know why I persevered until the end. It’s the first book I finished reading on my own…”
The first story he finished on his own—
I knew how important an existence it was for him.
In my case, it was one I pulled off the bookshelf at home. Yes—that was dad’s bookshelf, when we were still living together.
I found the book on a whim during my childhood. It was written by a renowned author, but it wasn’t world famous, nor was it a masterpiece. Even if I mentioned it to someone other than an avid fan, they probably wouldn’t recognize it.
The reason I found the book was its title.
The title was very exciting to an elementary school student.
Agatha Christie’s ‘Addicted to Murder’
Later on, I learned of another translation of the title, ‘Murder in Mesopotamia’.
It didn’t have much mystery compared to other works by the same author, like ‘And then there was None’ and ‘the murder of Roger Ackroyd’, wasn’t as famous, and didn’t contain any amazing trick. The tagline ‘Addicted to Murder’ wasn’t really relevant to the content.
But it was because of this work, which was almost unnoticed except by Christie’s ardent fans—that the young me fell for the subtlety of the secret room murder and the charms of the famous detective, and I couldn’t break the habit.
In that case.
Just as ‘Addicted to Murder’ made me into who I was, maybe this ’The Dancing Girl of Siberia’ made the current Mizuto Irido.
I squeezed through the gaps between the fallen books, came to Mizuto’s side, and looked at ‘The Dancing Girl of Siberia’ lying quietly on the table.
“Dancing Girl…I get that, but what does Siberia refer to? Railways?”
“Have you read it in a textbook or something?”
“The Siberia Detention Incident…great grandfather served in the War, and was a prisoner in the Soviet Union for three, four years or so.”
The unfamiliar term felt so surreal to me.
I see…the generation of our great grandfather experienced the war…
“Then, is this memoir about his experiences as a prisoner in Siberia…?”
“Yeah. The book mainly talked about his experience of starvation, almost freezing to death in the harsh weather, and almost dying of exhaustion by the excessive forced labor—”
“It’s all about near-death experiences, huh?”
“And also about his comrades dying before him.”
I stopped talking.
I’ve never been hungry, I’ve never experienced harsh weather that endangered me-—the biggest hardship I’ve ever suffered in my life was a long-distance run during gym class..
I heard it mentioned repeatedly in the textbooks and the lessons…but it all sounded like an isekai story.
“……Then, The Dancing Girl?”
“Yeah, he compared a woman he was on good terms with in Siberia with Ogai Mori’s ’Dancing Girl’.”
“It sounds…romantic for some reason, that’s unexpected. It’ll be horrible if the ending is like ’Dancing Girl’ though…ah, so do you have some Russian blood in you?”
“…You can read the book if you want.”
While I was surprised, Mizuto handed over the book ‘The Dancing Girl of Siberia’.
“Well it’s a book, you need to read. Since you’re so curious, have a look. It’s not very thick, as you can see.”
“What are you worried about?”
I timidly received ’The Dancing Girl of Siberia’.
The book was indeed very thin, so thin that the hard cover might be thicker than the pages.
But I felt an unknown willpower from the body of this book.
It was like an obsession, a grudge…or various complicated emotions gathered together to form a sense of weight.
“…Did…anyone else read this book?”
“Probably not. It was in the deepest part of the bookshelf when I found this book. I guess everyone would have known of this book though”.”
It was a book neither uncle Mineaki, Natsume-san nor Madoka-san read—it was Mizuto’s origin.
The fear I felt at this moment was greater than when I entered the study..
—Can I really, read this …?
Higashira-san’s face flashed in my mind.
She should be the one here, reading this book, right? …such thoughts naturally popped up in my mind.
“…I should enter the bath then.”
Mizuto stood up, left the room, and went to the corridor.
“You’re free to read this book however you want. Just remember to put it on the table.”
And then, Mizuto’s presence faded with the creaking of the wooden floor.
I was left alone in this cave that reeked of old paper, with the only copy of this book in my hands.
To be honest, there should be someone else standing in this room.
But in fact— the person standing here was none other than me.
‘The Dancing Girl of Siberia’.
I looked down at the title of the book.
I thought of Mizuto who handed me this book.
This time, I needed to catch my breath thrice to calm down.
I opened the cover.
“When people are dying, they will often look back on the past. I have never felt shame in my entire life, but I have countless regrets. One of the most heartbreaking is the memory of Siberia.
The love of my wife and children was never indifferent nor false. However, the time I spent with her in a foreign country was akin to the glow of a candle flame, which shall always remain in my heart.
Ahh, Siberia. My Unter den Linden.
Just as Toyotaro Ota did, I shall pen my memories here. This marks the end of my literary career, and also a confession of my heart.”
And with this prelude, ‘The Dancing Girl of Siberia’ began.
This Toyotaro Ota was the protagonist of the ‘Dancing Girl’ penned by…while studying abroad in Germany, he fell in love with a young girl named Elise, but ultimately chose betrayal to protect his family and his reputation. There probably was no character more reviled by girls than him in any textbook material for modern language.
Kousuke-san recounted half of his life, as though he was putting himself in the shoes of that Toyotaro.
He has a good relationship with his fiancée, whom his parents have arranged for him to marry, and was heavily groomed to be an elite. However, he received a red letter from his country and left his hometown to become a soldier.—
The story of his life was depicted with a masterful writing style incomparable to that of his true profession.
Kousuke-san was sent to the front lines in Manchuria, where the war ended.
He surrendered to the Soviet Union as ordered by his country, and then, he was delighted with his fellow comrades, for they could return home and be reunited with his family and fiancée.
”Tokyo, вернуться домой”.
I was delighted. I explained to my surprised comrades the meaning of this term.
This” домой” meant ‘home’ in Russian. We could return to Japan.
We took the wagon, feeling hopeful about heading East to our homeland. Once the train departed, we noticed something amiss.
The train was headed West.”
For months, the Japanese soldiers who dreamed of home were sent to extremely cold camps, where they were fed only a small amount of sour black bread and salty soup a day, and made to do hard manual labor.
According to Kousuke-san, he was one of the luckier ones of that batch. His knowledge of Russian meant that he was given the role of interpreter, and was exempted from physical labor. He was also able to get some better food.
However, his role as a representative of the Soviets to the Japanese soldiers was sometimes resented, and in the strict surveillance society of the Soviet Union, he was sometimes accused of being a Soviet spy just because he could speak Russian…
At some point, my eyelids were filled with a vivid picture of the cold and harsh Siberian gulags.
It was as if I was looking into someone else’s life, and my existence was being swallowed up by the memories and feelings of Kousuke Tanesato-san
“My literature has never been destroyed even in a distant land. My books were confiscated, but their contents remained in my mind. If I recited them, I could familiarize myself with the rich stories and nostalgic words.
As I did so, others who shared my interests would come, listen, and discuss. Not only my fellow countrymen, but also people from other countries who had a love for literature.
O great Dostoevsky! You have truly connected humanity.”
Even in the harsh life, there were glimmers, like a bonfire in the midst of the blizzard.
The most dazzling of them all was that Dancing Girl of Siberia.
She was a woman called Elena.
She was the daughter of a Soviet official who had a mutual interest in literature. He became her tutor, teaching her Japanese, and influenced by her father who was an avid literature fan, gradually came to have a heart-to-heart relationship…
I couldn’t help but see Mizuto and myself in their story.
This was the start of the breakdown.
The encounter that was bound to break up.
After all, it was written at the beginning.
Kousuke-san had a fiancée back home—
“Many of my literature colleagues criticized the ’Dancing Girl’ protagonist Toyotaro Ota as weak-willed.
Toyotaro always followed the path paved by his family, country, and people, but when he met and fell in love with Eris in a foreign land, he strayed from that path for the first time. He did not have the courage to overcome adversity, and he chose to lean on the assistance of his friend, instead killing the heart of his beloved Elise.
There is no shortage of criticism about what a man is if he cannot protect a woman.
However, I strongly sympathized with his way of life and the way his heart was. Whenever I exchanged words with Elena, or gazed at her smile, the face of my strict father always came to mind. Make your house rich. Make your country strong. I had never even doubted his words.
No matter how much I communicated with Elena, I could not imagine myself defying my father’s words and staying in the Soviet Union. If the time came, would I drive my loved ones crazy like Toyotaro did? I was terrified.”
As time went on, Kousuke-san had to fight against an ideological movement in the camp called the ‘Democratic Movement’. In reality, it was a Soviet brainwashing program to inculcate communist ideology in the POWs, and his old friends rebelled against it, so he had to support them.
In addition to hard labor, Kousuke-san’s friends were harassed in the camp. Fatigue, hunger, extreme cold, and mental exhaustion piled up, and—
“I couldn’t help my friend, even though he helped me so many times. And yet, even at the very end, my friend never blamed. I could see our distant hometown in his eyes.”
The writing in this chapter was disordered, as though reflecting how his heart was in turmoil.
And finally, after three years as a POW in Siberia, he was finally on the verge of being repatriated to Japan.
He had grown close to Miss Elena and her father, and was advised to stay in the Soviet Union. He was offered a job and asked if he would marry Elena.
Kousuke-san’s choice was exactly the same as what he imagined back then.
He didn’t have the guts to leave his hometown for a temporary love. He couldn’t forget his home, his country, his fiancée.
And so when he told her so, Miss Elena smiled gently at him, and said,
“Please, continue to live happily.
Those were the words she said with the Japanese I taught her.”
Kousuke-san narrated this moment when he had his back turned on Miss Erina.
“You can laugh at me for being weak-willed, or you may call me unworthy as a Japanese boy. Nevertheless, I will record here my honest feelings at that time.
I really wanted you to hold me back.”
…That was the last sentence.
I kept the last page open for a while, and stared at the text.
A teardrop fell on the old paper.
I hastily rubbed my eyes.
How long had it been…since I teared up reading a book…?
Was it because it’s a true story? Or is it because it’s about the great grandfather of Mizuto—and mine…?
It’s fine to wet such an old book right? I looked down at the open page to wipe it anyway, I noticed another tear stain..
There was another tear mark on the page.
…This book was already bound, the manuscript written by Kousuke Tanesato must be elsewhere.
This tear stain would naturally be from a reader—the only other reader of this book…
At that moment, I had a vision.
In this dark and dusty study…I saw a little boy crying as he read this book.
I’ve never seen that man cry over a book before.
But it seemed…such a scene actually happened before.
The white incandescent lamp hanging from the ceiling pointlessly spread its brilliance, and the partying noises of the adults reached this study from afar.
It was as though this study was isolated from the world.
Or it was as though I was isolated from the world.
—He had always lived in this world his entire life.
“…You’re still here?”
A long shadow was cast from the moonlight through the doorway into the study.
“Close the shoji. It’s summer, but you’ll still catch a cold.”
Mizuto said, looking a little dumbfounded, and deftly entered the messy study.
Once he saw the opened ‘The Dancing Girl of Siberia’, he slightly frowned.
“Did you…finish that book?”
I nodded slowly.
Mizuto let out a long sigh, and didn’t say anything.
The room smelled of old books, and silence drifted in.
Nothing could be heard.
My mind was occupied with the boy who had once been in this room and he, who stood before me.
So…I made up my mind, and asked a question I never thought of asking till this point.
“Hey, have you…written a novel before?”
Mizuto was troubled to hear my sudden question, and I continued.
“I did…back in elementary school, I wrote a mystery novel that was basically a ripoff from Agatha Christie. I couldn’t read the text properly, the story and the tricks were all borrowed from somewhere else, but that novel had everything I liked. It was full of ‘me’.”
That’s why I still had that novel.
I brought it with me when we moved over.
It was so embarrassing that I couldn’t think of showing it to anyone else, and even I didn’t want to throw it away…but I never thought about throwing it away.
At that moment, Mizuto’s eyes opened slightly.
“I…want to read the novel you wrote too.”
Mizuto’s mouth was half-opened, and his breathing was erratic.
“You…called me by name… …”
“We’re family. Isn’t it normal?”
I giggled mischievously.
Until now, I’ve only called him by name in my mind.
Even when I was in front of mom and uncle Mineaki, I would only address him with ‘kun’.
But let me call you ‘Mizuto’ here.
I’ll keep calling you that.
I don’t want you to disappear from my life.
I don’t want to disappear from your life.
I want you to hold me back—and I’ll hold you back.
“Let me read it, Mizuto. I’ll show you mine.
Mizuto averted his eyes, as though he was obfuscating something,
“…I’ll think about it if I have the chance.”
“I’ll be waiting for you as long as it takes.”
After all, we’ll be family forever.