On Monday, God created the world.
He created the concepts of the presence and the void, in the place where there was nothing.
On Tuesday, God distinguished the order and chaos.
Defining freedom and restraint, He dictated the directions to take.
On Wednesday, God honed the numerical values.
The refined, intricate work brought about much amazing variety.
On Thursday, God allowed the Time to flow.
Values expanded exponentially, giving birth to the original soup.
On Friday, God overlooked every corner of the world.
After millions of hours passed, He saw that the world had become ideal. God loved that world.
On Saturday, God rested.
Billions of hours of time had passed by in total.
And so, on Sunday, God abandoned the world
15 years ago, God suddenly appeared before humanity, and told them.
“That world is overflowing with people. This world will come to an end. Ahh, I have failed.”
Leaving only these words behind, God vanished, and back then, while humans were lavishing hymns on this world of Spring, they were left quaking. Their species existed for less than a hundred million years before they finally met God. However, those first words from Him, were words of farewell.
From that day on, Man could no longer die.
Their hearts ceased to beat, their flesh rotting. The Dead could continue to act.
From that day on, Man could no longer be born.
The flames of the factories had extinguished, and new humans were no longer built.
After God no longer inhabited this world, humans screamed in agony. Millions shrieked to the point of vomiting blood. The Living quickly whittled down in numbers, and then the entire world was filled with the Dead.
And so, the gravekeepers appeared.
These gravekeepers were the final miracles that God had granted for the sake of Man.
Gravekeepers would never age, and never know fatigue. God gave them the most ideal of bodies humans could ever think of, had them build graves, and bury the wandering Dead, their work being ensuring the peace of the Living. At this point, Man could finally rest.
“That is a gravekeeper. To protect the rest of people.”
Yoki repeated this bedtime story for the umpteenth time, even adding in at the end–Ai, as one of the gravekeepers, you too have to protect the rest . It was the same old story.
However, on this night, this story ended here.
This room was filled with treasures.
Just like the tools Ai owned, this room was built by all the villagers. The bed, cabinet, table, and various little things, all embellished like presents, were lined side by side. Everything, whether it was the bear toy, or the new shovel, were laid out in the room.
And in the middle, Ai was giving a blissful snore.
Goodness gracious, Yoki muttered, and closed the book.
“Sleep now, Ai…good work today, as always. Really, thank you.”
Laying the blanket upon her, Yoki patted her head, and left the room.
Anna was in the living room behind the door, clearing the cutlery. She had her hair tied up, not wanting it to be in the way. Surprisingly, the home apron suited her.
Dinner was not plentiful, but sumptuous. There were two meat dishes, along with cake as an after meal.
“She fell asleep while I was still narrating. Of course, it’s mostly because she’s too full…thanks for today.”
Yoki placed his hand on his wife’s shoulder, consoling her for her good work. Looking at the complicated dishes, it was obvious how much dedication she had. Anna turned her head around worriedly, saying,
“Hey Yoki, is this really fine? Is it really a good thing…for me to be a mother…?”
“Of course. Didn’t everyone in the village agree?”
Yoki showed a kind smile, patting his wife on the shoulder.
“I want to thank you for agreeing to this. It is a really tough job to be a mother.’
“No, it’s my pleasure. I do love you, and it’s wonderful to have a child at such an age…right now, I am so happy, it’s worrying.”
But Anna then showed an uneasy look,
“But is it really happiness…for you two…?”
“What do you mean?”
“Recently, I have been thinking that…you might be happiest being with Ai.”
Anna seemed a little out of sorts as she evaded Yoki’s hand, leaning by the window side; she pulled the curtains aside, and watched the night outside.
“One day, both of you will hold hands, and leave this village, abandoning all lies…you shall live in another land for another 4, 5 years, and Ai will mature. Surely she will grow into a beautiful lady, and will fall in love with you…this is most natural…and happiest, isn’t it?’
“Again with that.”
Yoki had his wife turn around, and kissed her.
“This path does not consider the most important thing…the one I love is you, not Ai.”
“Y-you’re saying this now, but who knows what happens several years down? Also, I’ll just get older and older, while Ai will become more beautiful…”
Yoki embraced her firmly, wanting to convey his attitude.
“Anna, trust me. In sickness and in health, I will continue to love you forever, respect you forever, and be thoroughly devoted to you.”
He kissed her hand.
“…We will reach the end of our lives. We shall rest together.”
This was the world where the dead roamed. Yoki swore not to have them wander around aimlessly after death, and to be buried together.
After hearing Anna’s response, Yoki embraced her firmly again, and the tension within his arms melted away.
“Calmed down already?”
Saying that, Anna gently escaped his clutches, paying no heed to his gentle embrace as she nonchalantly put on her shawl, picked her bag, and prepared to head home.
“Heading back now?”
“Yes. I did intend to spend the night here…but I cannot bring myself to say this.”
Since you told me to believe you, so she implied. Anna gave a feeble smile, one so dazzling that it ached Yoki’s heart, and he added on,
“…But just one night, everyone in the village…”
“No can do.”
Anna immediately cut him off.
“How can you set a good example, saying such things here? I’m going.”
Anna firmly held the hand of her husband. She opened the door to the outside.
At that moment, the door to the child’s room opened.
“…Anna…you’re going back?”
Over there was Ai, who was rubbing her sleepy eyes.
“Aha, you woke up?”
Both of them exchanged troubled looks. In the meantime, Ai darted in.
“…Anna, I don’t want you to go back…”
She was acting like a monkey, clinging onto Anna’s belly.
“Wa-wait a minute! Don’t give such a crying face, okay? Aren’t we always like this?”
“But Anna…you’re mama today though…”
It seemed Ai was scared of loneliness, as she was sleepy, and had enjoyed herself for the night.
Left with no choice, Yoki placed his left hand on Ai’s shoulder, saying,
“Hey Ai. Anna’s tired now. Don’t you always sleep by yourself anyway?”
“But mom…should be sleeping in the same bed…as me…”
Yoki gave a hard sigh.
He gave a gruff voice, one he usually would do whenever he was angry. He exerted more strength into his hand.
“Look Ai. What’s the matter? You aren’t the kind of child to be so stubborn, right? Look, don’t be like this…”
“Ai, go sleep now.”
But no matter how they coaxed or reprimanded her, Ai just kept her head down, remaining silent.
This rookie father did not know whether he could beat the child. The mother in turn was stunned, due to shock, and due to the pain in her flank.
“Ai, it hurts! Let go of me, my makeup…”
“Ai, enough of that!”
Yoki lashed out.
He was determined, and grabbed her shoulder, raising his hand up.
At that moment, she widened her green eyes, staring at both the adults.
Her eyes were filled with tears, her expression filled with yearning, pain and bitterness.
What was with that look?
Yoki felt a chill, and was rooted to the spot. He knew something major had just happened, but he was not sure exactly what happened. Never once had such a scenario occurred, and he never saw Ai act like this before. To him, Ai should have been more reasonable, carefree, but always able to figure out what the adults really wanted. She had her own opinions, but was never one to be obstinate over it. Thus, even though she was reprimanded before, she would not be beaten. While she might be troublesome, she was never annoying. Yoki had always assumed she was this kind of child.
But this child was selfishly stating what she wanted, bothering him, pleading with all her might.
Yoki felt that he had to take immediate action. He knew he should clear out all the debt that was owed till this point.
But in the end, Yoki could not move. All he could do was to clench his fists, and remain rooted.
After a while, time suddenly moved. However, it did not seem to be defrosted, but crashed as it had rotted away.
Ai seemed to have felt dejected, and slowly let go of Anna, the strength sapped from her. Yoki saw that the chance was slipping away, but he could not move at all.
Right when the last glint of light was about to trickle from Ai’s eyes,
The air began to move.
Anna knelt down, and gently embraced Ai. She had verbally expressed her worry that her clothes would be crumpled, that her makeup would be ruined, but at this point, she did not care, and embraced Ai within her clutches.
Like a real mother.
Anna sounded like a different person as she called her daughter’s name. That despair in Ai’s heart, which had left Yoki helpless, immediately vanished thereafter.
“Mom can’t sleep with you.”
Anna patted Ai on the head, and the latter frowned unhappily.
“But I will remain by your side. I will always, always be your mother. Okay?”
“You don’t believe me now? You’re old enough, and yet hard to handle…”
Ai seemed embarrassed by those words, and she blushed as she fidgeted.
Don’t move, so Anna told Ai. The former took out a handkerchief, and wiped the tears and snot away. This seemed to embarrass Ai further, as she grabbed the handkerchief and wiped her own face.
“Can you sleep alone now?”
“Really? Ah yes, I can have Yoki sleep with you.”
“It’s okay! I’m fine! I’m going to sleep!”
Saying that, Ai hurried back into the room. Anna did not look worried at all as she watched the girl leave.
“…So what’s the situation now?”
Finally, Yoki thought of moving as he twitched his neck. Without looking at the former, Anna said,
“…In other words, for that moment, I became her mother.”
“Still don’t understand? Such an unreliable father.”
“Fufu, it’s fine. You’ll understand one day.”
“Let’s hope so…”
In the end, I couldn’t do anything—this notion left Yoki deeply ashamed.
“Don’t you know, Yoki? Once a family is formed, the father is the last to gain awareness…the one first to realize is always the mother whose belly gets bigger with the baby, and the father is always the last. This is normal, so don’t worry.”
Anna consoled him, and exited the hut with a smile, not showing any uneasiness or delirium.
Yoki was feeling a little forlorn as she left them behind.
Good grief, he shook his head, and began clearing the beer bottles and glasses left on the dining table, only to find some of the glasses heavy. On a closer look, he saw some bubbled beer.
He looked at his own reflection upon the glass, and found his eyes corroded by intense guilt.
After much hesitation, he decided to finish this drink. He poured the rest out, took one large glass, and swigged it down.
Ai had a mother; Anna and he had a child. Every villager agreed, and it was worth celebrating.
So why did he feel so bitter drinking this beer?
He changed the glass, and drank it again, yet found it hard to gulp. No, it was not an issue on the beer. He was drowning his issues.
He did not feel drunk, and there was no beer. However, Yoki had no intention to open another bottle, and went to his room, intending to sleep, passing by Ai’s room.
He was ostensibly attracted by something, as he stood before the door, opened a little crease, and found the little gravekeeper sleeping blissfully.
Seeing her like this, Yoki felt that he was saved, and closed the door.
He did not say goodnight, instead saying,
“…I’m sorry, really…”
Ai stabbed the shovel deep into the bottom of the grave, wiping her neck with the towel. The warmth of spring was not to be underestimated, as she was covered with sweat. She took a large gulp of water, and popped some sweets into her mouth. The sweets had no place to rest as it rumbled about in her tongue, and the taste of strawberries immediately spread in her mouth.
Ai loved strawberries. They were sweet.
She then shouted out to pump herself up, picked up the shovel, and turned towards the holes. As she had been working hard all morning, the hole that reached her knees just a moment ago was already at waist level.
One of the corners, the place that Ai was facing, was obviously deeper than the other areas.
(I dug too much as I was thinking too hard.)
Ai nodded, and reflected on her actions, before focusing on digging holes again. Simple manual labor instead left an unnecessary void in the mind.
Why did Yoki apologize to me while I was sleeping?
There were times when Yoki would get drunk like that.
There were times when Ai would read books under the moonlight, in the middle of the night.
There were times when both would happen at once.
The moment she heard the creaking of the door, Ai would immediately stuff the book under the pillow and pretend to sleep. “You asleep yet?” Yoki would ask, and she would snore in response. During such situations, Ai would hush her breath, feeling jittery as she endured such an unnerving stare, worried that Yoki would say, “stop faking already’, or “Sleep already.” She would hear the creaking on the floor, waiting for him to leave. Yet, at the last moment, he would always say,
He would always say sorry.
This sequence of events had occurred a few times.
“What was that about~?”
Ai muttered to herself as she stuffed the shovel into the dirt.
Yoki did something he had to apologize to me for, and kept apologizing.
This little strangeness kept snowballing. Once Ai had realized this, she could sense something was amiss every time the villagers treated her as a gravekeeper. The villagers would always disturb Ai, preventing her from fulfilling her duties by giving her sweets or handling her chores, like the day before, and be told off by Yoki and her.
Ai started to have such thoughts.
Whenever one discovered something, one would start noticing various clues.
And so, Ai started paying attention, realizing that every single villager was apologizing to her in some sense. They were either giving her sweets, helping her with chores, or patting her head, all of them showing a moment of apologia in their eyes.
The whole village was trying to bluff her.
Ever since she discovered this, Ai could not ask about anything.
Every single villager had agreed to hide something from her. It was likely it all started when her mother died, that every single villager chose to hide this fact from her.
Ai had realized this two years ago, and chose to be ‘fooled’.
She decided to keep on living, while pretending not to know anything.
It was no wonder, for if she did, perhaps she would be poking at a hornet’s nest? This was the only place she could be at. For many years, every villager hoped for her to be like this, and only until the previous day did she finally have a guardian. However, anything vexing remained as such to her.
She kept thinking intelligently, making the best choices. At the very least, that was what she had thought.
She was a twelve year old gravekeeper.
At twelve years old, it meant that she was no longer ten, no longer a child, a grown up.
What should I do? What am I trying to do?
At this point, Ai did not notice the stares from anyone else, and sank into deep thought. The usual smile on her face was gone without a trace, and had become completely emotionless.
She looked over at the place where she stabbed the shovel, and suddenly noticed to her shock that she was just digging the same spot.
She stopped, subconsciously dusting herself, adjusted her straw hat, took a deep breath, and stretched. Having bent over for half a day, her bones cracked as she stretched, so loud it took her by surprise. She was really hoping that she would not be having creaking bones at the age of twelve.
After some stretching, Ai looked over to the hill. A grave was before her, on the mound that had become much lower. This grave was filled.
“…Mama, what should I do?”
In this world where the dead wandered as a matter of fact, the person within the grave spoke no words. She had underwent her burial, and entered eternal slumber. It was Ai, not anyone else, who did the deed.
Suddenly, Ai was unmotivated to do anything. She tossed the shovel aside, and sat by a grave. She looked up, and saw the faint clouds of Spring ease by, and some coagulated clouds dispersing from the others, shrinking in size.
She weakly lowered her gaze, probably because she was staring at something bright for too long, and could only sense that the grave seemed strangely deep and dark.
What was the purpose of digging these graves?
Ai was a gravekeeper. Ever since she was born, she was deemed as one. Ever since her mother passed away five years ago, she became the one person with this role in the village. The job of a gravekeeper was to help handle the burials for the dead, and to console the living. If there were any wandering dead, she would have them return to the grave, grant them graves, and grant peace to the lamenting living.
However, Ai only got to fulfill this job once, and that one time was for her mother’s burial. At seven, Ai did not know what was going on, and merely abided by the words of the villagers, swinging the shovel.
She could not vividly remember what had happened, and only sensed that she was abiding a person’s beckoning, that wherever she was told to dig, she would swing her shovel there. She really, really could not remember the details.
She had no self-confidence at all.
She firmly believed she was a gravekeeper, but to others, was she really one? She only handled a burial once, and had no instructions to abide by.
Thus, Ai dug 47 graves at such a place.
The graves should only be prepared for those who were really dead. There was no real benefit to digging 47 of them, for in Winter, they would be filled, and in Spring, the seeds of the plants would fall in; sometimes, wild birds would build their nests within. What she should really do was to work hard and study every day, waiting patiently.
However, she could no longer bear with this. Ai knew she was a gravekeeper. Burdened with this task, she had to find something to do. She dug one in Spring, and another in Summer, the digging getting faster as she grew up, and at this point, she could finish one in three days.
The 47th grave would be finished with another one, two digs. Holding her shovel properly. Ai invariably hesitated. Once she was done, what should she do next? Once the graves were done, along with the coffins, what should she do next?
At this point, she had to stop.
Ai looked deep into the grave. Who would be sleeping within?
Yuto or Daigo? Anna or Yoki? Or maybe,
Though she had prepared the graves and the coffins, done with all the preparations, Ai still had no idea what death was.
“Until then…will I really be a proper gravekeeper?”
Until then…again, Ai thought of these.
The passing clouds did not answer her, and the dead remained in slumber.
She wanted to hear from a person. At this thought, the cawing of a crow just so happened to pass by in the sky.
With her mouth agape, Ai looked up at the sky. She felt utterly belittled, stood up to raise the shovel, and stabbed it towards the ground in defeat, venting her frustrations.
By noon, the graves were dug. She was finally done.
Ai inspected every single grave, and delicately washed every single tool to spend the time. She did not want to return early just because her work was done.
But no matter how long she dithered, her work was done by the time of her second break, and she decided to leave the graveyard before it was evening. She was feeling downhearted on the way back, for she was uncertain, not knowing what to do for the next day. Even if she did ask the villagers, surely something would obstruct her.
However, her gloom lasted only until she descended the hill and returned to her village. When she noticed her village, an elation rose within her.
There was family waiting for her.
Family! How wonderful it sounds. Ai’s cheeks just so happened to relax. She was taken aback when she woke up, for Anna was already at her house before the sun rose, waking her up, making breakfast and lunch for her. Ai believed Anna was making dinner. While the latter was bad at seasoning, surely she would be elated if Ai was to go help her.
Anna was really acting like a mother. Perhaps she was acting more maternal than Ai’s own mother.
As for Yoki…
Ai pondered for a moment. She knew nothing about a father.
—Your father is a man-eating doll (Hampnie Hambert). One day, he will surely visit you.
When her father was discussed, Ai’s mother merely said these words. While Ai was not really sure on what it was about, she remembered these words the entire time. However, she was ultimately unsure on what a father should be like.
“Let’s go home.”
Ai muttered to herself, smiling away as she hopped forward. Anticipating Anna’s dishes, she started humming happily, completely oblivious to her surroundings.
And thus, she did not immediately realize—
That something was amiss.
There was no one in the village.
She did not spot a single villager on her way back. It was farming time, so why was everyone not at the fields? There was also a strange scent. It was gunpowder. It was way too early to be shooing the insects.
While perplexed, Ai did not realize what it was. How strange, how strange, so she nodded away as she took the shortcut, the little garden-like trail passing through the houses.
At this moment, she met someone.
With a little thud, she knocked into someone’s clutches. Both parties stumbled a few steps back.
Ai had an encounter with fate.
He was a boy, so peerlessly pretty. His hair were silver threads, his eyes were rubies, and his skin was ice. He was diminutive in size, and was a complete albino. His movements however exhibited no weakness, his slender body filled with strength, his eyes giving the immense pressure of a king.
Like Ai, he had lots of tools on him. His shoes, pants, and even his coat were black; it would be more appropriate to call them weapons than clothes.
Other than his clothes, every single tool on him were actual weapons. From whatever that was visible, there were three grenades and a handgun, along with an assault rifle slung over the right shoulder. The heavy-looking coat might contain some other stuff.
Also, his right hand was holding a shotgun.
That gun was pointed right at her.
Ai blankly stared back, and found that the boy had already positioned himself to fight.
It was a pop-action sawed-off shotgun, customized. The gun was originally designated to shoot at wild beasts outdoors, only to be modified later on into a gun that was suitable to killing people on the streets.
He twirled the gun stock like a pen, and slid it back towards his left hand, his right hand on the trigger. He had perfect aim at that moment, right at the forehead in fact.
With a little jolt, the ammunition was loaded. He tightened his elbow, and stared intently. His index finger curled. It appeared he had broken from his concentration, for he thereupon showed a relaxed look.
The muzzle simply moved away, and the boy apologized as though he had just bumped into someone.
Ai too hurriedly lowered her head, muttering a few words.
But, just now, eh?
“Are you a child here?”
Before Ai could say anything, the boy asked. She could only close her opening mouth, and nod.
“Just you alone?”
“You can’t speak? Or are you stupid?”
“I-I’m not stupid!”
She flusteredly spoke up. The boy was pretty, but rotten in personality.
“Then good. So, who are you?”
The boy’s smile was like a cat, grinning like a cat eyeing a prey before it.
“I’m Ai, the gravekeeper.”
Heh. The boy responded, his red eyes narrowed as he knelt down to the height of Ai’s eyes.
“Wh-what are you doing?”
Is my shirt loose? Or is it my shoelaces?
“You? The gravekeeper of this village?”
The boy asked Ai with a sharp glare.
“…Do you have an issue with that?”
“No, not at all…well, it doesn’t matter. If you really are, all the better. I have some things to ask, can I?”
“Question, a search.”
The boy paused. Ai was confused, but she prompted him,
“I’m looking for a person who calls herself Hana, dead or alive.”
Ai simply shook her head. The boy showed a surprised face at that reaction.
“Now for an additional question, I am looking for a woman with the following characteristics. Between thirty to forty, brown hair, black eyes, a nice face, of similar height to me, small breasts, and again, wanted dead or alive.”
The boy’s question consisted of various strange terms.
Ai was unable to comprehend fully, but she started to ponder. The only young woman in the village was Anna, and she had large breasts. There were no such person in the graves.
So she shook her head.
“…Then, an ambiguous search. Is there anyone who fits these characteristics…dead or alive.”
Ai tried raising a few names, and the boy inquired about them, one by one. The possibilities quickly dwindled to zero.
“…Not here, huh?”
The boy sighed, and stood up, turning away without hesitation.
“P-please wait a moment!”
Ai called for him without thinking. It might look bad on her if this person was to simply ask and just leave. But once she called for the boy, she did not know what to say.
“What? I’m busy…”
The pretty face contorted into a grouchy look. Ai had a thought, thinking this person was so pretty, that such an expression looked good on him.
I have to say something!
She messed up. That was what she really thought.
The boy froze for a moment. Like an actor brilliant at improv, he thanked her politely.
“Eh…you, ah yes! Who are you!?”
“Me? Ahh, so I never gave my name? I see…I’m.”
The boy smiled. He resembled a child who was going to bust out a huge joke.
“The man-eating doll (Hampnie Hambert).”
“Understood. Mister Hampnie Hambert.”
“Wait! Don’t believe me now! Who actually uses such a name!?”
The man-eating doll (Hampnie Hambert) retorted.
“Huh? But didn’t you introduce yourself as such…?”
“It was just a little joke! Is there really anyone around you called Hampnie Hambert?”
“Ah, that’s the name of my father.”
Huuhhh!? Hampnie’s art-like face contorted into a cheap one as he glared at her, before he calmed down,
“…You have parents? What, your father calls himself Hampnie Hambert?”
Yes. Mom told me before she died “Your father is a man-eating doll (Hampnie Hambert). One day, he will surely visit you.””
He meets the condition! Ai pointed at him.
“What in the world are you thinking? How did you end up thinking of me as your father?”
Ai sensed her mistake, and tilted her head,
“It is weird. You do look like you’re seventeen or eighteen, Mr Hampnie…”
“The father I imagined is a tough guy about 40 years old. In his debut scene, it’ll be strange if he’s not yelling and fighting against something.”
“…I think that’s not the only strange part….”
“Well, it’s a small problem.”
“You’re extrapolating things a little.”
“Heh? Why you say so?”
Ai was confident as she said this,
“I feel this is fate. It’s my instinct.”
There’s no need to explain further, right? So her eyes stated. Peeved at her expression, Hampnie said,
“…You aren’t planning to have a proper conversation with me at all, are you?”
“Of course not? Papa.”
Hampnie muttered this term quietly. His red eyes looked back and forth between Ai and the village, pondering about something. Ai had assumed he was going to ask something, and tensed up.
“Well, whatever. Call me however you like.”
Hampnie however merely brushed this aside as he turned away. This time, he was really departing.
“Papa. Where are you going?”
Of course, Ai followed. Hampnie let out a sigh,
“You said you’re a gravekeeper. Is that real?”
Ai was wondering why he would ask the obvious, and quietly nodded. With a skeptical look, Hampnie sighed, and smirked,
“If you insist, I have a job for you, o’ gravekeeper.”
“What is it?”
“What other job is there for a gravekeeper to do?”
Before he finished, Hampnie was grinning away as he head forth. He dusted the hem of his coat, his slender legs quickly shuffling back and forth, such that Ai had to run to catch up to him.
They entered the village, and stepped upon the street.
Everyone was dead. Probably. It was the first time she had seen corpses, and in this day and age, it was difficult to determine if someone had died. However, if one was beheaded, it was likely that person was dead.
The street she passed by had completely changed. There were bullet holes on the walls, chickens cawing as they scampered out of the wrecked sheds, and some buildings had collapsed.
Filling this scenery were corpses. All of them were showing heinous looks Ai had never seen before, dying as they wielded guns.
Ai immediately fell to her knees.
“You can bury them.”
Those words pricked at the deepest part of Ai’s heart. She was simply seeking something to support herself, forcing herself to think of this.
The dead was to be buried.
That should be the mindset of a gravekeeper.
She had thought it was time for that. The trial to determine her mettle as a gravekeeper had arrived.
When a gravekeeper discovers a corpse, there’s a need to bury. Another thing a gravekeeper has to pay attention to however are the whereabouts of the living. Burying the dead remains important, but the peace of the living is equally so.
Ai thought of what she should say, and intended to repeat herself. She lifted her shovel, getting up despite being weak in the knees. There’s no problem.
She approached the corpse closest to her. Though it was missing the right half of its head, she knew who it was. Just this morning, she had seen the man was dressed in clothes and shoes. She was also well familiar with the slurred voice when he called her name. Though she knew so much, for a moment, she couldn’t remember his name. Old man Yuto seemed so foreign to her.
“…Identify the corpse…identify the time …”
She did these two things. No problems. Next, she was to check for any living persons.
“Is there anyone—anyone still alive—?”
She called out, but there was no answer. Right, Yuto should be married. What about granny Yuki? At that moment of thought, Ai looked over to another corpse to her side, and found Yuki dead too. Then, she thought of Yuki’s friends, and found them dead opposite her. Everyone had dead. At that moment, Ai had a feeling that there was no one alive to begin with.
After that, she had to bury them. I can do it.
Ai put the shovel to her side, and lifted the corpse with both hands, forcing back the chills that was rising up her hands.
It’s so heavy! The burden on her shoulders were many times more than she had expected, and her knees crumbled. The corpse suddenly crashed into the ground, the rotten eyes looking up.
Under the pull of gravity, the eyeballs rolled towards Ai.
I can’t do it. These words slowly seeped into Ai’s consciousness, and she hurriedly shook off this notion.
I can do it. I’m a gravekeeper. I’ll do it.
She unwittingly panted hard, as though she had made a full sprint. I can do it, definitely.
Ai raised the shovel and stabbed it into the ground. Since she could not move the corpse, she might as well move the grave over to the corpse. Now that’s thinking out of the box.
The ground was hard to dig at. She had repeated the same motion thousands of times, yet she was unable to do so as easily as before. But it’s fine, she could do it. she’s been crying, but she should be able to do it. Her cheeks and tongue were hot, and she was panting like a dog, but she should do it. Her head was searing away in a fever, and she had difficulty thinking, but it was fine.
Of course! Because I’m a gravekeeper!
Ai took a deep breath in her choking throat, wiped her face with her sleeves, and repeated to herself three times, I can do it. She continued with her job. The grave was no more than 10cm deep. I can do it.
Suddenly, she heard a voice.
“…well, isn’t this little Ai? What’s the matter? Why ye crying?”
Gruff as the voice sounded, it was genial, filled with kindness and concern. It was a voice Ai really wanted to hear, but yet didn’t want to.
“Grandpa Yuto …”
The corpse suddenly got up.
“…Grandpa…erm, your head’s wounded …”
“Ahhh? It’s fine. It doesn’t hurt.”
She knew what was going on. On this world, the dead wouldn’t die, and would wander around, even with severe bleeding on the right side of the head.
Ai stared blankly at this terrifying scene before her.
“Oh! It’s serious! Some terrifying brat came into the village! And…eh, I can’t really remember…that’s weird.”
Yuto held his head, trying to remember, but his memories were seeping from his cranium, mixed with the sand on the ground.
“…Anyway, it’s serious! You have to run away!”
Saying that, he reached his hand out, but Ai instinctively ducked aside.
“Ai, what are you …”
The brief moment of fingertip touch left her extremely nauseous, and she pried herself from the hand.
Yuto didn’t say anything. Ai watched him worriedly, scared that he would be infuriated, but she was wrong. Yuto kept staring at Ai’s shovel, along with the little hole next to her feet.
“Ai, why are you digging this hole, ye?”
Ai couldn’t answer. Once she lifted her eyes, she found them looking at the hole on Yuto’s head.
“Is there something on my face?”
Yuto did not mind as he reached his hand to touch the hole in his head, realizing that whatever that was supposed to be there was gone.
Silence divided the living and the dead.
“…W-what…is this? No, this…”
Yuto forced a smile, reaching his hand out, trying to find a way to excuse himself. Ai’s body would not obey her as she shivered. The expression on Yuto’s face changed. He was terrified, looking back and forth between her and her shovel, as though she was a real god of death who was going to harken his demise.
Ai wanted to yell, wanting to tell him not to looking at her with that look.
“Don’t look at me!”
But the one yelling that was Yuto.
“Stop giving me that look! What’s wrong with you? You’re treating people as monsters! I’m no different in any way!”
Ai was dumbfounded. She knew that when Yuto viewed her as a death god, she had deemed Yuto a monster.
“N-not at all. This is a misunderstanding..”
She was lying. Even then, she was repulsed.
The vexing, ugly dispute continued. The death god continued to dispute, and the dead kept harping agitatedly.
Argh, this is not okay.
Yuto reached out to Ai for the third time, and Ai broke away for the third time. But this time, Yuto was being serious, and Ai was grabbed easily by the left hand, tumbling over as a result.
He was holding a six-barreled revolved in his right hand.
Ai thought that he would kill her, for the notion came so naturally to her.
But the gun was immediately pointed elsewhere.Yuto fired off two rounds at the house before him to suppress his enemy, hiding Ai behind him.
“Get down! It’s that brat!”
White hair appeared by the window. It was Hampnie. Yuto fired a shot to prevent Hampnie from approaching, and pulled Ai away from the window, forming a deadlock where neither side could determine each other’s location.
Ai remained prone as she looked up at Yuto, seeing that his face had lost half the agitation it had, instead replaced with that of the adult who always protected her.
“Yo, the guy who hasn’t died cleanly.”
This voice came from the other side of the wall.
From those words, Ai figured out where Hampnie was. The village was so small, the villagers knew the colors of the neighbors’ beds. Ai could hear some dull sounds, and from that, she inferred that he was using a cupboard by the wall as cover.
Yuto naturally had the same feeling, sensing his victory as he licked his lips, reloading in a fluid motion. He slowly advanced, trying to ensure his victory. One step…two steps…and one more step.
However, what was said next ended up crushing all his hopes.
“I’m going to fire off 30 bean-sized lead bullets here. Two seconds later.”
One, the moment that was said, a bullet was loaded. Yuto showed no hesitation as he spun around, leaping upon Ai
Hampnie did not count to two, and did not fire any lead bullets.
“Impressive. Nice attitude, you’ve changed my opinion of you. That’s worthy of respect.”
With a foot on the window sill, Hampnie took aim, not with a shotgun nor an assault rifle, but with a short, thick revolver. It was a hunter’s last resort to hunt a huge beast.
He fired. The magnum bullet blew off the rest of Yuto’s brain. The gun left a little buzzing, and the village finally regained some silence.
Once it was done, Hampnie hopped in through the window.
“Sorry for not finishing the job properly. I did blow off the heads of the others though.”
Ai remained crushed by Yuto , unable to move. She was unscatched, and there was no blood on her clothes. Yuto’s heart had ceased to beat, his blood not dirtying Ai in the slightest.
Ai got up from beneath the heavy corpse.
“…You, killed everyone?”
“I didn’t kill them.”
The swirling emotions in Ai’s mind created a surging vortex.
“I’m not lying. The era of humans killing each other has ended. All I did was to blow their brains off and break their spines. It’s the job of a gravekeeper to kill.”
Ai raised her shovel, and swung it down.
Ai had a dream.
She felt it was a weird dream, and got up in a daze, looking around. She wasn’t familiar with the bed and the room, but she immediately realized where it was. It was the only Kiln in the village, the bedroom of old man Daigo.
Why was she asleep in such a place?
Ai saw that she was passed out, was dressed in her usual clothes, her various tools hanging on her. She undid the button on her collar, heaved a sigh, and observed the room carefully.
She couldn’t find the shovel.
Naturally, there shouldn’t be a shovel in the bedroom, but the absence of the shovel left Ai really uneasy.
She walked out of the room.
There were the vessels and furniture old man Daigo made, neatly laid out in the room, waiting for their master to return. However, Daigo was not present, and the mosquito coil that was usually lit was long gone.
Ai continued outside, and found the sky to be red. For a moment, she thought it was the sunset, but the direction was wrong. It seemed she had slept an entire night. She looked towards dawn, and turned towards the workshop.
She did not encounter anyone. For some reason, she avoided looking down at the village, and did not wonder why the chickens ran away.
She did not see anyone as she went from the house to the workshop, and did not stop to wonder why.
Ai sped up. There were sounds from the workshop, containing the kiln Daigo was so proud of. Ai could find Daigo there, and that surely it was because she was tired from playing at his workshop.
She opened the door.
Hampnie was there.
Hampnie was naturally created the dead. The kiln used for pottery was modified to a furnace used to cremate, and so he stuffed the corpses in this modified kiln, even using her familiar shovel to stuff charcoal into the flames, only stopping to look at Ai.
Ai appeared to have something to say, but she couldn’t and merely raised her trembling fingers, pointing at Hampnie. There was no significance to her actions, but her body suddenly tilted over, and she leaned on the door. She hastily grabbed onto it, preventing her body from falling over.
It wasn’t a dream.
“Me? Didn’t I say my name already?”
“That’s not it!”
Ai covered her face with her hands, and all she could feel was her head exploding.
“What…is going on?”
Hampnie did not answer.
“What’s going on? Why? Why do this? I…everyone…”
Lots of doubts came onrushing, but none of them took a tangible form.
“Why did you kill everyone?”
“Why did you leave me alive?”
“Why have you come?”
Hampnie did not answer.
Hampnie did not answer as he continued with his word. He lit the charcoal tossed into the kiln, saw that the flames covered the kiln, and closed his eyes.
He prayed silently.
Gone was the sneer he just had. He was completely covered in sweat and dirt, focused on cremating the dead with an earnest look.
Ai leaned at the door, dazed as she watched this. The question she was about to keep asking remained as she stared at Hampnie intently.
Ai felt that he was really acting like a gravekeeper.
Ai felt that he was being too sly for showing such a look despite what he did.
She got up slowly, and snatched her shovel. Though she was stumbling, she shoved a pile of coal into the kiln.
The corpses and the shovel belonged to her. It was her responsibility.
Hampnie watched on, and shrugged, saying, “Calmed down already?”
Ai stopped moving the shovel. She understood very well what he was getting at, “You’re not going to attack me now, right?”
Ai tilted her face. At the end of that nightmare, she raised her shovel, and swung it hard at Hampnie, hacking at his slender neck.
Hampnie merely shifted his face aside, evading the attack.
Ai turned her arm around with complete disbelief, but by then, it was all over. Hampnie managed to dodge and take her down brilliantly.
Right when Ai was about to swing the shovel again, Hampnie’s toes followed the momentum as he kicked at Ai’s chin.
That was all she could remember.
Ai recalled, froze up completely like stone, and after a while, continued with her work.
She was completely confused.
Hampnie did not say anything as he turned his back on her, doing something else.
With the two of them together in the workshop, Ai suddenly realized that she was being with her father.
She felt that something cruelly unreasonable was at work.
The kiln continued to burn through the night, and Hampnie did not rest as he kept cremating the corpses. Ai felt that she could not fall behind, and even as she stumbled with fatigue, she continued to toil. Whenever Hampnie told her to eat, she would say, “You eat, then I’ll eat.” Whenever he told her to sleep, she would say, “You sleep, then I’ll sleep.”
Finally, Hampnie left her to her own, and shrivelled in a corner of the room. Ai saw that he was asleep, and finally returned to her bedroom. It was the second night.
The next day, Ai woke up in the middle of the day. She went to the workshop, finding Hampnie continuing to work. She hurried over, only to be told by him,
“Go eat. I’m done eating.”
Ai went to the living room he pointed at, and found loads of food there. There was soup boiled from onions and potatoes, fried bacon with baggage, and a loaf of bread.
Ai had no appetite, for she felt like a ghost, yet she had an obligation to finish what was before her. She felt that she could not eat anything, but she forced herself to scoop the soup, and bring it to her mouth.
It was utterly delicious.
The taste of onions seeped into her parched tongue, causing it to ache. It was the best soup she ever had.
She then ate the bread, had a bite of bacon, and drank some water.
Each dish was unbelievably delicious.
So Ai kept eating heaps of food, and drank bowls of soup. She stuffed her face full of bread, and gnawed at the bacon.
After replenishing salt and water, Ai shed new tears, and the numbed sadness started to ache again.
She was left frustrated that she was able to live on, eating and sleeping wildly. She, unable to shed tears as she did not consume anything, felt so different from before.
She had no intentions to eat, but easily regained her appetite due to the delicious food. That left her in despair.
The despair strangled at her neck, causing her to choke. Then, she finally got to swallow, the strength seeped by her sadness left her more relieved than before.
She thought she should simply die.
She felt that she had more than enough reason to do so.
So she thought as she wept, choking away, engrossed in her own sadness. Deep within her heart, she felt this ending was for the best.
And when Ai finally quiet down, there was no noise to be heard from the living room.
Ai suddenly hollered, and lifted her bread. She tore at the bread, bit by bit, and stuffed them into her mouth. She tore at the bacon, bawling away gaudily as she ate in an unsightly manner.
That was what she felt she had to do.
Ai walked down the slope leading home, with a pace neither brisk nor slow.
The village was surrounded by hills on three sides, and the entrance was facing the East. There was a gathering spot at this open space, and Ai’s home was a tad higher, furthermost inward.
The wreckage of the village remained. The birds not ensnared in the traps scavenged for flesh, and the flies flew about in the pools of blood. The corpses were the only ones that vanished.
Most of the dead villagers were cremated. Hampnie knew where they were, and gathered them all. Ai, overly familiar with the dead, identified them, and had them cremated.
There were 45 corpses collected in total.
Ai looked up at the sky, recalled the number of graves she dug, minused herself off, and found it to be the same as the number of villagers.
There were 47 graves in total.
She scaled the slope, arrived before the familiar corridor, and faced a gust of wind. It was often a relax breeze; apparently, the villagers had chosen this place for her to live in when she was born.
The house looked no different from before, aside from some messy footsteps at the door. Like usual, Ai cleared the dirt off her soles, and reached forth to open the door.
Yoki and Anna should be inside.
Their brains should have been blown apart, just like the others.
That should be the case.
What if that was not the case?
She found herself having thoughts she should not have, but she could not help but eimagine. If…if they were not inside, and if they were still alive, holding hands…
She would be utterly elated. That should have been the case.
What if they left her behind?
Ai did not know what she was thinking, and did not know if she was hoping for them to be alive, or for them to die.
She opened the door.
The bell made a cut chime. Ai did not change out of her shoes as she stepped inside. Her feet caused some strange creaking on the wooden floor. There was a rifle to the side of the corridor, one she never saw before. She turned around, and found the door unlocked, along with the stench of blood.
Their corpses were embraced in each other’s clutches in the living room. They were shot through the heads, Yoki leaning on the wall, embracing Anna, whose right arm was torn off.
But even amidst this devastation, they looked so tranquil.
Ai snivelled hard as she cried, disgusted at her own thoughts. She hated how she felt relieved seeing them present, sad that she had forgotten about them. She hated herself for feeling sadness. She was despondent to realize she was not as innocent as she thought.
Ai wiped her tears, and separated the two’s embrace. Yoki’s corpse was all stiff, and she wasted a fair bit of effort.
“Need my help?”
Hampnie said at the door. Ai spun around, not surprised in the least. She had sensed his presence the entire time, but she never expected him to willingly offer help.
Ai said to a dark corner, and the darkness did not seem guilty in the slightest, simply answering, “I know.” The voice vanished soon after, but not before it muttered,
“…And that’s why I hate this.”
Ai did not know if those words were meant for her, or for the sleeping duo. However, Ai did not want to know, so she quietly continued with her work.
Righto, so Ai lifted Anna. There was no perfume to be scented.
They carried the corpses up the hill. Ai was carrying 20 on her back, while Hampnie behind her was carrying 27. The dead was cremated, kept into little containers, and remained still.
The hills she did not see for three days remained so barren. There were 47 open graves, and it was a majestic sight. Hampnie whistled.
Ai put down the dead, and picked up the first time. She embraced Anna and Yoki within her clutches, and solemnly proceeded forth. She placed Anna into the grave she dug up 2 days ago, hesitated, and placed Yoki into the same grave. While it meant that she had dug an incorrect number of graves, nothing of what she predicted was right to begin with.
The graves were clearly too big, and there were no coffins to be used.
Again, Ai cried. She cried as she buried the villagers, one by one.
Hampnie watched her as he continued to smoke.
Soon after, the sun rose to the top, the cigarette was exhausted, and Hampnie started to yawn.
“The burials are done.”
Ai’s work was done.
Hampnie widened his eyes slightly, got up, looked towards the graves, and found the ground flattened.
“Hm, not bad.”
Ai felt that he had neither the right to praise her or demean her, but she nodded. No one would visit this graveyard again.
Hampnie had a look at a nameplate or two on the ground, took out another cigarette, and lit it without putting it into his mouth.
He stabbed it into the ground, closed his eyes, and prayed. Not a word he said, and not a gesture he made as he remained as still as a statue, praying.
Ai too uttered some prayers.
The smoke kept rising.
Once it dispersed, Hampnie turned around, lighting a cigarette to smoke. Ai walked away wordlessly.
“I’ll be leaving tomorrow.”
Once they descended the hill, Hampnie suddenly noted.
“What do you intend to do in the future?”
These words left Ai confused, and her mouth remained opened for quite a while. It took her a long time to recover, and then, she noticed that there an ‘after’. Her life in the village was about to com over to an end, and after having swept aside the suffocating sense of enclosement, she felt her vision widened greatly.
But after the strong gusts blew aside, what appeared before her was an endless wasteland. Was Ai, alone in the barren world, with no persons nor beacon to guide her.
Only Hampnie was present.
A sense of familiarity anchored deeply within her heart, and she hurriedly shook it off. She had to despise him, and not seek solace within him just because of the soup and bread.
Ai pressed upon her heart, harboring such thoughts.
“If you have no place to go—”
Hampnie trekked down the hill path, and spoke without looking back.
“I can introduce an introductory letter to you..”
“Right, get someone to adopt you. I do have lots of connections.”
Ai quickly gave chase, but was stupefied upon hearing that.
“…You’re willing to help?”
“I can’t possibly leave a runt aloe in such a place, you know? See, I’m an adult. Don’t worry, even in this age, there are many good men to be found. Get someone to formally adopt you then.”
“But…I’m a gravekeeper, you know?”
Hampnie remained speechless, and after a long moment of silence, he said,
“…You’re no gravekeeper.”
Ai lifted her eyes towards his back, not knowing what he was saying.
“…First off, I was still thinking that damned God can do anything, so He could have created improper gravekeepers, but this isn’t the case.”
“First, a gravekeeper has no parents.”
“No, but I do …”
“Yep, that’s why you’re not a gravekeeper…”
At this moment, Ai noticed what Hampnie was trying to get at, and what he was hesitant over.
Hampnie was intending to wreck Ai thoroughly.
“Those guys appear like flies. There’s no way they have parents.”
“…B—but everyone said that I am.”
“They all said you’re a gravekeeper? Can you really trust them? Those guys have been lying to you for years.”
Ai gasped. She too knew that everyone was hiding something from her.
“I said I’m not your daddy. Listen, my real name…isn’t the Man-Eating Doll.”
“Eh? But …”
“Anyway, the Man-Eating Doll is just a fairy tale, a doll that has a spoilt spring that keeps moving forever. They used to tell the kids, “If you don’t hurry and keep your toys, the Man-Eating Doll will come for you.” Anyway, that’s the name I’m borrowing.”
Saying this, Hampnie seemed really gleeful.
“I don’t know what those villagers are thinking. They got an ordinary runt like you believe that you’re a gravekeeper, and say that you have parents, that your daddy’s the Man-Eating Doll. It’s all nonsense.”
The jigsaws of doubt in Ai’s heart was reassembled by Hampnie, forming an ugly case of chaos.
“What is going on…”
Ai muttered to herself emptily.
“What exactly is going on?”
Nothing made sense to her.
“The truth should be buried in the darkness, or I should say, beneath the graves, right?”
Hampnie sarcastically quipped, and Ai held the shovel firmly, thinking,
“You’re the one who wrecked everything, and now you’re saying that?”
There was certainly a ‘catch’ to this village, some vexing, mysterious vibe to it. However, the mysteries should be unravelled slowly, and not pried apart so overbearingly.
Aihad an impulsive, violent urge, grabbing the handle of the shovel firmly.
Hampnie kept staring at her.
“You want to kill me?”
Ai suddenly lifted her head, thinking, What is he asking. Isn’t it obvious that I want to kill him?
But she couldn’t say it.
Ai slowly lowered her head, her heart unable to conjure any notion for revenge. She might have thought of revenge if she woke up to find Hampnie, but he did truly mourn the dead. The impulsive emotions would not simply vanish, but they were no motive for her to kill. Even till this point, she firmly believed Hampnie was her father. There was no proof, but she believed they were bound spiritually.
Everything and anything was robbed by him, but Ai could not bring herself to hate him. She felt he was too sleazy, and despised herself for being unable to bring herself to hate him.
“If you’re a gravekeeper, you won’t hold any grudges.”
“If you’re a gravekeeper, you won’t be beating up the living.”
“You’re no gravekeeper. You’re a human.”
The damning conclusion from above left Ai dejected, and she could shed no tears.
Ai was simply hoping that he would not talk any more.
Over the years, every single person had called her a gravekeeper, and begged for her to be one. What else was she to do? Never once did he think of the feelings she had while living in the village. After her mother died, she was the only one left, and since they entrusted her with this task, was that not the only path she could choose? The only thing she could do was to be an obedient child, no? Whenever they patted her on her head, gave her snacks, doted on her, she felt they were being kind to her, wanting her to do something in return, or to repay them in some way.
Thus, she lived till this day, finally gaining a family, people who were willing to welcome her without too much of a fuss.
But everything was taken away by the Man-Eating Doll, physically, mentally, the living, the dead, everything was devoured cleanly by him.
And even at this point, the last of her starting to crack apart.
“But even so… I’m still a gravekeeper…”
Ai was greatly rattled, but she clung onto this point as much as she could.
Hampnie stopped talking, and instead, exhaled some smoke, seemingly disgusted by the stench.
“If you want to keep living amongst the people, you have to accept everything.”
Saying that, he walked away. They trekked down the hill path, to the fields. He stopped, narrowed his eyes at the village, and smirked,
“Look, Ai, a gravekeeper here…”
The cigarette in his hand was pointed at the person there.
“I’m referring to someone like her.”
A woman was standing in the middle of a village, a shovel resting upon her shoulder.
The person was dressed in a common shirt, a common pair of pants, a common pair of shoes, a common face, and a common face.
And a scar.
The woman standing there was the perfect specimen of a healthy woman, but the scar down her right eyebrow to her eyelid did distort the balanced look.
Without hesitation, Hampnie went forth to talk.
“Now is this a rare encounter. Nice to meet you.”
The woman answered with an earnest smile.
“You’re pretty big. An early generation?”
Hampnie blatantly sized up the woman’s body, looking at her long legs, firm belly, and meaty body. His leer left Ai utterly infuriated.
“Daddy! You’re really rude!”
“You’re the rude one. Gravekeepers shouldn’t be looked of in that matter. Their bodies have no such functions.”
Ai never expected herself to be told off instead, and glared back.
“Hello, the name’s Hampnie.”
Hearing that, the lady suddenly raised her eyebrows, showing a bemused smile.
“Uh oh! Mama! Time to clear up the toys!”
So Hampnie said. Both of them chuckled in unison. It appeared they were making a joke Ai did not understand.
“Yo, Ai, this woman here is a gravekeeper.”
Saying that Hampnie pointed over. Ai widened her eyes. It was the first time she had seen a gravekeeper.
The gravekeepers sent by God, simply put, were ‘perfect humans’. They had a penchant for toil, and fine bodies. They could understand love, would help others, and would always have a smile.
This woman showed a tender smile befitting of a citizen of Heaven, just like the smile Yoki spoke of. Ai suddenly felt inferior, like a new rookie meeting her peers. Tentatively, she greeted, “H-hello! I’m Ai!”
Saying that, Ai let out a long exhale, and looked up.
“…You’re really pretty.”
“I am honored to receive your praise.”
The woman quickly bowed formally.
“Nice to meet you, I have a Scar.”
“Yes! Miss Scar, is it?”
“Hold on a minute, don’t you have any common sense? Who comes up with that name?”
Hampnie tugged at Ai’s hair.
“Hey, scarred one. What do they always call you?”
“The ‘killing demon’.”
“What about before then.”
“‘Death god’, ‘inhuman’, ‘scarred one’, ‘Yuri’, ‘Maria’…”
The woman rattled off several names without hesitation, include some incorrigible insults.
“‘Stone head’, ‘death god’, ‘scarred one’, ‘Maria’—”
“Enough. What’s your first name? Did God not give you a name?”
“Interesting. You don’t care?”
“Ai, what do you think, seeing how she doesn’t care? She says she doesn’t care about not having a name. These gravekeepers are all the same.”
Ai looked up blankly at Scar, who was beaming away.
If there was such a perfect person around, that person clearly was not a human. Scar knew about love, humor, angry, and vices, but never followed through with them. Such existences clearly were not human.
Her instincts told her that she was different from that.
If it had been anyone else, like Hampnie, telling her that she was not a gravekeeper, then she could continue to hope. Even then, she could not help that it was not the case. It was over the moment Ai felt that she was not a gravekeeper.
Ai finally accepted that she was not a gravekeeper
“Is there something wrong?”
The woman looked down at her, smiling. The smile of a Holy Mother left Ai thoroughly heartbroken.
“Ahh, don’t mind. She just has an identity misnomer.”
Hampnie continued with nonchalance in his voice. They left Ai alone, conversing away.
“Right, so, do I call you Maria? I guess the name Scar is probably used as an insult for you.”
“No, please do call me Scar.”
Hampnie widened his eyes, conveying his shock.
“Hm, never thought that you will refuse…it seems you’re really malfunctioning.”
“To me, this certainly is important.”
Scar touched the scar that gave her the name. Her body could only be described as perfect, yet the scar appeared to be an existence of calamity.
“Hm, how impressive.”
Hampnie simply praised her scar and name, and Ai too felt the same. Ai felt that both the perfect body curves and the imperfection on the skin. The villagers Ai knew of had already lost their fingers, arms, or senses, covering their scars in shame, which really disappointed Ai.
“Yes, I do feel that it is really…good…”
Ai had difficulty describing things. She felt that despite their losses, they should not be too mindful over it. Ai had somewhat recovered, and found herself fond of this gravekeeper.
“Also, I have something to ask you. Question, I’m looking for someone.”
Hampnie spoke with the same unique manner of speech he said to Ai. Upon hearing that, the expression suddenly vanished from Maria’s face, instead replaced with a robotic look befitting her expression.
“I’m looking for a person who calls herself Hana, dead or alive.”
“There are 8 cases with matching nicknames.”
Hampnie kept smoking as he raised questions, and like before, he kept narrowing the list down through the name and the characteristics. Ai understood that Hampnie’s unique manner of speech was a standard manner of speech when conversing with gravekeepers.
And like before, he came up empty.
Hampnie muttered the same words to himself, and tossed his cigarette aside.
“Nothing else on my side. Sorry to delay you.”
“No worries. Helping the living live a wonderful life is our responsibility to begin with.”
Scar said with the usual courtesy of a gravekeeper, smiling,Ai was a little envious of her, for she was unable to talk so succinctly.
Hampnie pointed at the graveyard.
“Are…47 bodies. Please bury them.”
“We just buried them …”
Ai was about to say that they were just buried, but Hampnie put his hand with the cigarette across her.
“Didn’t I say that only the gravekeepers can kill? Those guys aren’t dead. In this age, nobody can die even with hearts that have stopped beating, and blown brains.”
“It doesn’t meant that they’re alive though. They’re not dead, and they’re not living. This goes for the Dead as a whole…and that’s why those gravekeepers need to act.”
Hampnie said, pointing at Scar.
“A gravekeeper has to scatter dirt upon the dead using the shovel so that they can pass on. Even if we blow up their brains and cremate them,all we are doing is merely to immobilize them …”
Ai recalled the strange warmth when she embraced the ashes within her clutches.
“These gravekeepers are either stationary or patrolling. The former will remain at the same spot, managing the Dead, commonly seen in large cities or the bordering villagers. The latter are always wandering, seeking the Dead. This woman here should be the latter, I guess?”
Scar said, somewhat hesitant.
“These gravekeepers really have sharp noses, and can detect the Dead no matter how far they are …”
“There are no dead people around.”
Scar flatly cut him off.
“I cannot detect any presence of the Dead from the direction you are point at. Is the location far away?”
“…Impossible. It’s just a hill away. 47 of them. You can’t sense them?”
“There are 50 buried there, but no further reaction beyond them. One of them has a strange reaction, but that can be ignored. I am a wanderer…with a different purpose myself. I am just simply passing by.”
Hearing that, Hampnie lit up a cigarette, and started to ponder. Ai remained by the side, reflecting over these words.
Only a gravekeeper can bury the Dead, and there were only two who dealt with the Dead. One of them, Hampnie, clearly was not a gravekeeper.
“In other words…”
Ai lifted her sparkling eyes towards Scar.
“I’m a gravekeeper!”
Ai was revived. The weariness within her body was replaced with vigor.
Hampnie looked on with disdain, exhaling all the smoke within his lungs, and questioned the crux.
“So Scar…this brat here is a gravekeeper?”
Hampnie appeared to be completely bamboozled for no purpose. Scar’s reply remained cold.
“Who knows…I have no…”
“You can’t tell?”
“I have no functions to distinguish between humans and gravekeeper, just as how humans cannot distinguish between dogs and wolves.”
“Stop talking with that gravekeeper language. So you mean ‘I can tell’?”
Scar nodded.Hampnie sighed, “You could have said so earlier. This is troublesome…so?”
“She is a gravekeeper. I can tell.”
These words continued to echo within Ai’s heart like a prophecy. Those were the words she wanted to hear.
“You hear that!? I’m a gravekeeper! The real deal!”
“…Hm, seems that way.”
Hampnie did not refute, and quietly nodded. Seeing his attitude ease up, Ai got cocky, carrying on,
“So? How does it feel after being so confident just now?”
Hampnie puffed a large breath of smoke towards her.
“Ack! Ack! What are you doing? Just because the truth’s here doesn’t mean you can be such a sore loser!”
“Right right right, I get it, I get it.”
His attitude left Ai suspicious. Till this point, he had been repeating his point that she was not a gravekeeper, yet he did not appear to be displeased, his eyes filled with some pity.
Hampnie called out, giving a different vibe this time. The change was subtle yet decisive, akin to the hammer of a machine gun being switched on or off.
“I don’t know what’s going on, but you probably have something to do. Please, do go on.”
Neither Ai nor Scar were trying to stop Hampnie from trying to shoo Scar away.
With a smile, Scar bowed politely, and simply left. Ai watched the shovel disappear beyond the village, looking completely confused, and asked, “What now?”
She did not think she was relying on him,
While Hampnie was a cruel mass murderer who would slaughter anyone within his sights, Ai still harboured some trust in him. He answered all her questions, really took care of her, and was willing to find someone to adopt her. While he had such a differing personality from her, he accepted that wholeheartedly.
So Ai never expected herself to be killed.
Hampnie nonchalantly tossed aside his cigarette.
“Now you got the proof as a gravekeeper. Looks like she’s a veteran. She’s trustworthy.”
Ai took his words literally, and broke into a smile.
“Now then, what do you intend to do?”
“Intend…? Intend what?”
“I’m asking, what do you intend to do later.”
Hampnie spelled out every word clearly.
“What do you mean, intend to do? Why are you asking this out of a sudden…”
Right, I’m a gravekeeper.Ai twirled her shovel about, looking at the emblem of brnaches and twigs. The partner held firmly in her hands, strongly proving her raison d’etre.
Her limp body was thus filled with enough strength to call herself a gravekeeper.
She felt that her existence was as sturdy as this shovel.
Thus, what she said to Hampnie was basically to pull herself together,
“I’m a gravekeeper.”
Ai was perturbed. She kept thinking that she was a gravekeeper…that the fact explained for itself.
“So, I ask, what are you going to do, Miss Gravekeeper? You haven’t answered my question …”
Hampnie sounded displeased, and that alone left Ai greatly rattled.
“I-in other words, I’m a gravekeeper. I need to bring peace to the Dead, and help the living continue to…”
“That’s not what I’m asking.”
Hampnie spoke silently, unloading a bullet trail of words.
“I’m asking where are you going to sleep tomorrow. What are you going to do two days later? What about three days later? A week later? A year later? How are you going to keep living?”
She could never imagine anything like that, and the shovel fell from her limp hands. The emblem once protecting Ai could only show its silver back.
Ai instinctively knelt down, trying to pick up the shovel, but Hampnie stepped onto the handle.
“What are you doing!?”
“This thing here is just a shovel.”
He exerted an overwhelming force in his leg through his feet. The shovel should be pretty sturdy, yet it was creaking under his weight. Ai’s strength alone could not budge it aside.
“Look, what are you going to do now? What can you do for yourself?”
“Shut up! Let go…”
“So I ask, what do you intend to do? What if there’s someone annoying before you. What are you going to do with him? How are you going to shut him up?”
Ai clenched her fists as emotionally as she did when she swung the shovel towards his head, and swung one at at his white face, leaping forth like a beast.
And Hampnie delivered a kick to her abdomen from below.
Her slender body was tossed up so hilariously high, and after half a spin, she fell to the ground.
Her emotions exploded.
Her body lost all control.
She was in such pain that she was numb, the inhaled and exhaled air clashing. The muscles she had never used were screaming agony. Her left and right hands were moving in opposite manners, she could not find her bearing, and she could not vomit despite feeling nauseous.
Her gut winced quite a few times. Finally, she vomited, the gastric juices falling along with tears and snot down her her face.
And Hampnie’s black boot came flying towards her nose.
Her neck was kicked into another direction, the thick nosebleed stuck deep within her throat.
She got kicked by him.
Followed by another kick.
And another kick.
Soon after, Ai crumpled like the others, closing her eyes and shivering as she kept apologizing for some reason. She had crumbled mentally, her rage long gone.
The soul of this twelve year old really could not withhold a shackling.
Her face, tummy, and limbs were in pain, and it was really terrifying. Her tears blinded her vision, her nosebleed and snot causing her difficulties in breathing. Hampnie, who delivered this pain to her, stood silently by the side, leaving her utterly petrified.
Even in the midst of this beatdown, Ai could not believe that Hampnie was violent towards her.
She felt this betrayal was too much, yet she felt the payback was to be expected.
She felt she never trusted him, but she did.
He killed her family, destroyed the village, and he himself had said that he was untrustworthy, that she should not be with him.
It was basically a sequel to the act when she attacked him with the shovel.
That it should have been the case.
Hampnie kicked Ai hard, probably trying to settle the score.
“You’re a gravekeeper, and whatever this village is, I get everything.”
Hampnie kept kicking Ai like a ragdoll, and stopped once she ceased to move. He knelt down, grabbed her by the collar, smacked her twice, thrice, and pulled her towards himself.
“It might be unbelievable, but you may be a mixblood between a gravekeeper and a human. You’re the kid born to a malfunctioning gravekeeper.”
Even after hearing such shocking words, Ai showed no reaction.
“But these don’t matter.”
Hampnie sneered, and no longer continued to smoke. He said,
“Forget everything. This village, your identity as a gravekeeper, or else you have no way to keep living among the people.”
Ai widened her hollow eyes. Hampnie said with some pity, “You’re too weird, too extraordinary. Your entire existence is full of fallacies, one carrying a shovel. It’s true that I’m a weird one too…but you’re weirder. You haven’t realized this, right? You don’t know that you’re a monster, not human, not a gravekeeper. If you dare to go outside like this…you’ll get beaten to death outside.”
Ai lifted her head hard. Hampnie then continued beating her, trying to rip her neck off.
“There’s violence anywhere. If you forget everything, I won’t hurt you anymore. Forget and live a happy life.”
Saying that, Hampnie spun around, leaving Ai at where she was.
Ai saw through his intentions, and shivered.
She flailed about, exerting strength in her limbs, and got up without a thought. She took a running step forth with her left, steadied herself with her second step. With amazing precision, she she controlled herself in mid-air, gathering all the recoil into her right leg, using it as a spear to kick forth. This flying kick ripped through the air.
However, Hampnie easily parried aside this kick. Given Ai’s physique, this kick from behind probably would not have been anticipated, but Hampnie smacked her with the left hand, without looking back, and left her behind.
Ai weakly fell on her back.
“You’re too weak.”
Hampnie did not budge, his back turned on Ai, saying,
“Feeble creatures are just so pitiful…”
Then, he slowly turned around, looking to the ground, seeking something before he glared,
“…Don’t you dare!”
With excruciating effort, Ai moved her disobedient body, not wanting Hampnie to snatch a certain something from her.
“This is…m-my precious …!”
With her quivering hands, she grabbed the dirt-stained shovel. She knew thatit, having protected her in the past, was no longer able to do so, yet she wanted to risk her life protecting it
“This thing is just a shovel.”
Ai embraced her partner firmly, protecting it from the terrifyingly steely voice.
“You can’t continue living without that thing protecting you?”
She looked down, and shook her head.
“Accept the fact. You’re human, not a gravekeeper.”
She shook her head frantically.
“Forget everything and keep on living.”
She shook her head, her tied hair had scattered and slapped upon her face. Hampnie clicked his tongue.
“Then what are you going to do!?”
“I don’t know!”
Ai lifted her head, roaring,
Before Ai was a pair of blazing eyes. Once she saw the colors in the eyes, she shivered. However, she spoke up, converting the remaining certainties in her heart to words, “I can’t…just forget about this…”
The villagers had been secretly training her, forcibly giving her gifts and love, allowing her to pass these days in ignorance and immaturity.
Thus, she became the gravekeeper of this village, and ended with bloody memories and jigsaws of secrets.
The jigsaw was reformed by Hampnie into an ugly chaos, but Ai ripped the picture aside, reassembling them as fragments, looking closely at the little pictures. Amongst these fragmented pictures was the village only Ai knew of.
She knew people woule gently call for her head.
She knew people would reach out to pat her head, knew of the old stench from their bodies, the sight of the village beneath the night hue, the voices of the kind villagers.
She knew the laws of a gravekeeper.
She knew of her acclaimed mission to comfort the Dead, help the Living, and witness the End of Humanity.
That was the Gospel others had imposed on her. However, such an appearance enthralled her, and she yearned to be such a person.
She knew she wanted to forget certain memories.
She knew of destruction, violence, blood and gunpowder. She knew of the growls from those close to her, and knew of the futile cries for the villagers.
The heavy bodies, the dull feet, the stench of human flesh being cremated, the weight of the shovel, the incorrect number of graves.
“I can’t possibly forget.”
“I can’t just forget everything and play dead to live on.”
Ai lifted her head.
The crestfallen eyes were exposed beneath the scorching sunlight, and she was so terrified, she shrank further. Her eyes would probably be deformed with a kick or two, and Hampnie did devastate her thusly.
But Ai did not falter, and did not escape with the eyes of a loser, and did not fight back. All she did was to hold her ground and stare back at the reality before her that was Hampnie. She neither resisted, nor did she beg for mercy, merely widening her large green eyes in a daze.
“…Seriously, what’s wrong with you?”
Saying that, Hampnie let out a deep sigh.
Of course, Ai’s words remained, “I’m a …gravekeeper.”
“Really…guess so…you’ve been saying this all the time…whatever, I’ll make you give up.”
“I won’t do anything to you. Those whose values of life can’t change will really suffer, but try your best.”
Hampnie nibbled on a cigarette, and turned his back on her, as though proving that he was not lying.
“There’s a first aid kit in the workshop. I’ll apply ointment on you.”
Ai’s mouth remained white, and she lifted her head towards the back of the head of white hair.
“…What are you trying to do?”
Hampnie gave an icy sneer, as though forming a crack on the white wall of ice. Ai dared not to look at his face like before, but she decided to believe his words.
“I may act like this, but I used to be known as a kind uncle back in my hometown, you know.”
“…Whatever. I’ll apply medication on my own. I don’t need your concern.”
“Fine, do as you please, since it’s your life.”
Let’s go, so Hampnie said, and giggled quietly as he walked off. Ai too hurriedly gave chase, and her thoroughly battered body somehow ended up being obedient. There was nothing wrong with her bones and organs.
Ai did not know why she was receiving such treatment. She hated the pain.
This scene ended, and following that was the incisive moment.
The Man-Eating Doll spoke up.
“You said you’re going to continue living as a gravekeeper, right?”
Ai nodded. Seeing that, Hampniechuckled,
“In that case…”
He grinned, probably having thought of a brilliant idea.
“So are you going to die here as a gravekeeper?”
She was speechless.
“There are all kinds of vices, like violence, desires, killing, decadence, failure, setbacks, hypocrisy and decay. If you are going to keep on living to your desires, these things are going to corrupt you one day. 15 years ago, that might have been a different case, but now that we’re at our end, Humanity will never accept you. You have to beat and kick aside these things for them to accept you. This job causes lots of despair.”
Hampnie’s voice remained gentle.
“The chances of you remaining as yourself until your death is terrifyingly low. Maybe the ‘hopeless light’ within your body will glow brighter than ever after some refinement…but the chances of that light being corrupted is thousands of times more likely, and in the worst despicable manner possible. So …”
Hampnie spat aside his cigarette.
“So why don’t you just die here?”
The cigarette landed, and the failsafe was pulled aside.
He twirled the slide of his gun like a pen, the piston brought to his left hand, his right hand holding the trigger as he took aim in an instant, right at the head, naturally.
It was a pop-action, sawed off shotgun.
The gun was pointed right before her…
It was the exact same scenario as when she first encountered him, but the mood was different. Fear and confusion seeped out of her heart. Would Hampnie be joking around here? He was serious. He was trustworthy.
Ai finally understood Hampnie’s intention, and guessed the reason for his violence towards her.
Hampnie wanted to help her. He wanted to grant her a life as an ordinary person, and deny her identity as a gravekeeper that would prevent her happiness. For that reason, he was willing to enact violence, and be hated for that.
So, he gave up on this idea, affirming at Ai had some ‘hopeful light that was beyond redemption’.
But since he had decided it was an unattainable dream, Hampnie said,
“Go die along with the light, like the sunset.”
He was willing to kill.
What a barbaric, savage manner of concern it was. How stubborn and convicted he was as he took this path.
She was truly no match for him.
The gun remained still, wide open before her like a tomb, causing Ai to feel that she was being sucked in. It was an unshakeable sign of death.
“…You’re joking, right?”
Ai groaned. She had no vigor to resist, and all she felt was despair.
She showed her green eyes..
“You’re lying, right…daddy.”
She dared not to believe, and worse, did not want to know that Hampnie was willing to kill her.
“You’re joking, right? This is a joke, isn’t it? We were just talking. You aren’t willing to kill me now, right? You saved me …”
Saying that, she laughed a few times.
Hampnie did not answer, merely gripping the gun, basically signalling that she was showing signs of a fall.
“Can you kill me? Can you, really? Can you kill someone you just talked to, someone you just saved?”
He was going to kill his daughter.
Hampnie did not answer.
“I can do it.”
Hampnie finally answered, tired of her pleas. Ai had tried to dismiss it all as a joke, and the smile disappeared from her face completely.
Fear immediately rose up her heart.
“I don’t want to die!”
Ai begged for mercy.
“I don’t want to die!”
Ai kept yelling, not wanting to die. She did all she could to sound pitiful and tragic, hoping that any adult with common sense would hesitate.
But the barrel remained still.
“No, I can’t let you live just because of this reason.”
Hampnie scoffed aside the desperate plea.
“Remember this well. There are two kinds of survival desires. One is to ‘not want to die’, and one is to ‘keep on living’. There’s a world of difference between them. The path you’re going to take isn’t as easily resolved as ‘not wanting to die’. The only words that can let you keep living is ‘I want to live’.
Ai looked dumbfounded as she digested these words.
Do I really want to continue living? Am I really that eager to keep living?
She lost everything.
The one she relied upon and trusted was pointing his gun at her.
Did she want to continue living even after such tragic circumstances?
Ai lowered her head, averting her eyes from gunpoint.
She was acting completely defeated.
Then, a gunshot was heard.
Ai was taken aback, and lifted her head. She thought she was shot, and then realized that could not have happened. There was no way Hampnie could have missed.
The shirt before her eyes was dyed red.
“Tch, my shirt’s dirty…”
Hampnie was dumbfounde, yet not caring for his own wound, instead worried about his own clothes. He showed no shock on his face, looking unfazed.
“Y-you aren’t hurt?”
“Of course it hurts, you idiot. I just got shot. My left lung’s completely wrecked. The bullet got shot through me. Ahh, my coat…cough…”
Hampnie cursed, still sounding energetic. Then, he spat out some blood, finally realizing that he was hurt.
And he collapsed.
Ai was the only one standing, not knowing what was going on at all. Hampnie, who was aiming to shoot her, had collapsed, and was probably dead.
She did not know what to do, only hoping for a person to do something.
And thus, her wish was granted, for a man appeared.
The voice came from the opposite side of a road, and a man came galloping like a wild horse. Ai froze up, and the man grabbed her by the back of her neck, dragging her back ten steps in an exaggerated manner, before asking,
“Wh-wh-wh-wha-what are you doing?”
“What else? Isn’t it rude of you to say that to your rescuer?”
The man shrugged, a smoking rifle resting upon his shoulder.
It was he who shot Hampnie to save Ai.
Ai recongized this, and wanted to bawl. She did not want to be saved in this manner.
Ai sobbied quietly, and turned around, wanting to run towards Hampnie. The man hurriedly grabbed her on the shoulder.
“What are you doing!?”
“Wait! Don’t approach him. He’s not dead yet!”
At that moment, they heard a voice that should not be,
“Yuri! Tiger of Jiangdong! Dmitryevich! Hunter! My old friend! Hahahaha! I thought there was someone stalking over me the past few days, but I never thought it would be you!”
The man quickly raised his gun as quickly as Hampnie did.
He was aiming at the boy who should have been dead.
Ai hurried over.
“Good morning, you living bastards.”
Hampnie sneered, opening his blazing eyes as he got up, and nonchalantly pulled out a cigarette, lighting it.
“Feels good man. It’s like I’m born anew.”
Hampnie was chortling away, as thought amused by a hilarious joke.
And then, Hampnie went over excitedly.
“But it’s been a while since we met, Yuri! Has it been 5 years? Or 10? Why are you at such a place? Is there anything you want with me…”
“Don’t you move!”
The man pointed his gun with a grim face, a stark constrast to the jovial Hampnie.
“6 years! Hampnie Hambert! 6 years since you killed my wife!”
Eh? Ai looked back and forth between them. Hampnie clicked his tongue.
“Yuri, don’t put it that way, okay? I didn’t kill her. That’s something completely different.”
“…She’s basically killed by you.”
“Well, that’s basically what you think…I see. So you’re here for revenge, but six years isn’t a long time, you know?”
Hampnie exhaled a trail of purple smoke, sounding really disinterested.
“Then? What do you want from me?”
“A showdown? This is pretty old-fashioned…you mean the one involving to people turning their backs on each other, take ten steps, turn around, and bam?”
“Right! One honest showdown with me!”
Hampnie betrayed a perturbed look, and stroked his chin.
“A showdown, huh…but are you going to introduce yourself first? If you don’t mind, I’ll help you out there. Yuri, this little girl is Ai; she’s a gravekeeper.”
Yuri looked towards Ai, who nodded silently.
“Right, a unique individual who had been taking care of all the Dead in this village. I just vetted her with another gravekeeper called Maria, whom you should have seen…”
Questions were appearing on Ai’s face. It felt unnatural for Hampnie to be explaining Ai’s predicament.
“Ah, hm, I see. A gravekeeper…”
“…Aren’t you too trusting?”
“There shouldn’t be any human of that age anyway.”
Hampnie widened his eyes, and seemed to have realized something as he asked Ai,
“…Ai, how old are you?”
She tilted her head, wondering what this question was about.
“You serious…damn. I’m the careless one.”
Hampnie showed a self-deprecating smile.
“What are you saying?”
“There were no children born since 15 years ago.”
She knew that. Yoki spoke of it every night.
God abandoned the world 15 years ago.
Ever since that day, humans no longer died, and were no longer born.
“So in other words, there’s no way you’re human.”
Ai punched her palm.
“Right! You’re so stupid, daddy! Nothing would have happened if you realized this!”
“Sorry, I don’t care about a pipsqueak’s age.”
Hampnie tossed a rock at Ai.
“What are you saying? What’s wrong with this village? This child…”
Seeing the doubt by this hunk, Hampnie tersely called him out.
“Do these questions help your revenge in any way? Can they save anyone?”
Amidst the spontaneous silence, there was an invisible exchange between the two.
“…No, forget about it. I’m not asking.”
“Really? Thanks…you’re the same like before.”
“I should be the one saying that.”
“No mistake about it.”
There really was an exchange Ai could not see.
“What are you talking about?”
“Sorry, sorry. Ai, this ‘guy’s called Yuri, my good friend. You’re familiar with his gun skills.”
Hampnie hammered his own chest, and the pointed at that man.
Yuri’s physique was more akin to a tiger, and not a human. He had his rifle raised the entire time, not showing any fatigue. His black hair and beard were well cared for, and he looked clearly refreshed.
The vibe he gave was akin to a massive, trained beast.
His blue eyes were removed from the sights as he glanced aside at Ai.
“The name’s Yuri. You can call me whatever you want.”
“…Never thought you would be the flirty type…that’s what you say when you meet others for the first time.”
Hampnie looked bemused by her.
“Pretty? Well that’s the first time someone said that about me. Thanks.”
“Yuri, don’t mind. This brat here loves gentlemanly uncles.”
“T-this isn’t what I mean…I just find him pretty.”
“Right right right, you’re right, whatever…but Yuri has a wife and daughter. We know each other since childhood…his wife died 7 years ago. Am I right, Yuri?”
“Eh? Then what you said …”
“She died 7 years ago. 6 years ago, she was gunned down. As for what happened during that year …”
He inhaled some smoke, and paused.
“This guy hid his dead wife from the gravekeepers, and brought his daughter along to live together.”
Ai felt a chill run down her spine, an utter sense of disgust flowing out in the form of cold sweat.
It was unacceptable to both a gravekeeper or a human.
“H-how could you do this!”
Yuri remained silent, frowning in anguish.
“This guy suddenly left us without saying a word. I looked for him everywhere, and finally found him hiding in the dark hills, living together with a corpse. He’s really gone in the head.”
“…So that’s why you killed her?”
“I didn’t kill her.”
Hampnie unhappily took a puff.
“I just had some words with her, shot her, and burned her. That’s all.”
“I’m not going to look for any excuses, but this is one point I won’t concede…I hate the Dead.”
Hampnie narrowed his eyes, his crimson eyes glowing like magma.
“No matter whether I do like them or not, they’ll only pull the Living down…they rely on the Living for compassion, bring about plagues. No matter how wise a sage they may be, they become fools once their brains rot, and they only care about their desires…was she not like that too…Yuri?”
“Even so, it doesn’t matter to me! I’m still happy!”
“Hm, I guess so, but I can’t really accept that happiness of yours no matter what. I’ll have to apologize to you regarding that point alone, sorry.”
Saying that, Hampnie changed the topic,
“Now we understand each other a little better now, right? I’ll introduce myself then.”
Before he finished his words, he drew a gun and fired. The handgun was pointed at his neck as he fired, the pin hit the bolt, and the bullet shattered his teeth as it entered the chin, blowing up a large chunk of his brain, the cerebellum and the medulla.
Again, Hampnie fell to the ground.
Daddy, what are you doing!?
Ai no longer had any idea of what was going on.
“Wait! He’s not dead!”
Yuri tugged Ai back.
“Hey…don’t…spoil everything, will you?”
Then, she heard a voice.
“Alright, you damn living bastards, I’m back. I’m the Man-Eating Doll. As you can see…”
Ai hastily turned her head around.
“I’m an immortal monster.”
She saw a sneer.
“…Been like this for 15 years. I don’t know the reason, but I should be the same like you, done in by that bastard of a God. Everyone else’s fated to either live or die, and I’m the only one forced to remain alive. I know this.”
Hampnie rattled on. Seeing him like this, Ai doubted all possibilities. First …
“It’s an act.”
Yuri said. His voice was filled with conviction, and there was no faltering in his eyes.
“That’s your old tactic, using your unique appearance and stunts to get people to think that you’re an immortal monster. That’s not going to work on me.”
“Hey, didn’t you see the gun just now?”
“The gun’s yours, and the bullets are yours. You could have tampered it all you like.”
“What about the shot fired? Didn’t you fire the gun?”
“Even my bullets can be tampered with.”
“Play dead. That’s always been your favoured tactic.”
“…You say that, but where’s the blood going to come from? What about the wounds? What about the feeling of hitting me? My corpse. How are you going to explain all of that?”
“Where are they then?”
Yuri mocked. There should be no blood, no wounds, and no corpse.Hampnie was speechless.
“There’s no proof of you dying and reviving, right? You were bloody all over, and now you’re standing here with no problems. Isn’t it an exaggeration to say that you’re immortal?”
Yuri’s blue eyes remained blazing as he narrated his thoughts.
“You’re just manipulating, acting like the character that’s the Man-Eating Doll. Hampnie, don’t you think this thinking is a lot more realistic?”
Yuri continued to loudly declare,
“Your immortal body is just a hoax! I’ll prove this!”
“I see. I, see.”
Hampnie nodded firmly.
“So you’re trying to say that I’m just an ordinary, vain bloke with white skin?”
“There’s no proof, but you’re going to ignore the devastation after you shot me, right?”
“Being immortal is just a lie. You want a showdown against me, and kill me, right?”
So Hampnie repeated himself a few times, inhaled from the cigarette, and exhaled it, “Are you crazy?”
“…What did you say?”
“Your logic sounds reasonable, but it’s all over the place. You’re saying I’m just pretending to be a monster? If that’s from a person I met the first time, then that person’s a bumbling fool, but pretty decisive to take it as the ending to a story. Yuri, this isn’t the first time we met. You know my methods, and this entire act is created by you. Why are you trying to fight me through your stupid guess? This is no different from suicide …”
Saying this, Hampnie realized something, and stopped.
“What happened to you daughter?”
Yuri did not answer. Ai asked, “His child?”
“Yes. I remember she’s 15 this year. The name’s Noemi. I chose that name. it’s a nice name, isn’t it?”
“To be honest, why are you only showing up today? It’s been six years, and you probably had lots of chances to meet me. You know where I usually hang out, and I never really changed places. Why wait till today?”
“Isn’t it better to take revenge as possible? You spent a happy life with your daughter, surely? Why wait till this day, 6 years later?”
For every word Yuri heard, some strength was seeped from him. Then, Hampnie summized the matter,
“Is she dead?”
“I see, so she died.”
Hampnie inhaled on the smoke, and burned through the cigarette before he exhaled. The thick purple smoke rose slowly, like a cremation.
“Was she ill?”
“…Yes, just last month.”
“Did you bury her properly this time?”
Hampnies sneered, but he was serious.
“…I performed the proper burial.”
Hampnie smiled. Gone was the forlorn look as he gave an impish smirk.
“So you came here, hoping to die in my hands, because you haven’t found a reason to live, right?”
Yuri’s jaws slackened.
“What are you saying…I’m here for revenge…”
“Revenge, revenge, revenge. Those words really do sound nice. I like that, since they’re human.”
Hampnie was beaming away, chirping as he chuckled.
“But your inconsistent motives aren’t a good thing.”
He clicked his tongue, swagging his finger.
“…What are you getting at?”
“If we’re talking about how fast you’re taking revenge, what have you been doing over the last 6 years?”
Yuri couldn’t say anything.
“I know, since we’re friends. You enjoyed living with your daughter in the city, right? Over those days, you forgot about taking revenge for your wife, didn’t you?”
Yuri was agitated, and pointed his gun at Ai’s head.
“Shut up, or I’ll shoot her.”
“W-wait a moment! This doesn’t involve me, right?”
“Hahahahaha! Yuri! What’s the matter? You think you’re mad?”
“You there, please stop taunting! You’re cruel!”
“Ai, don’t worry. Yuri won’t shoot.”
Hampnie was overly confident, chortling.
“Yuri, stop trying to act insane already. You’re not thorough with your motives, you’re just focusing on the result. No, you’re just trying to bluff yourself, and that’s worse.”
“…What are you saying?”
“Find anyone you’re familiar with, and ask them. Tell them you want to kill Hampnie Hambert, seewhat they say. 10 in 10 will say “That’s suicidal”…simply put, you just don’t want to live anymo, but you hate that you’ll probably die alone, so you just thought of dying for some purpose, like dying while taking revenge for your wife…well, it doesn’t matter. It’s not like we aren’t familiar with each other, and I can end things off for you…unfortunately, I’m a bad man.”
Hampnie chortled, mocking him like a demon eating away at human lamentations.
“I’m not going to make your death meaningful in any way.”
Darkness befell upon them. Before they knew it, the day ended, and night had arrived.
“If you’re fine with that, come here at dawn the next day. I accept your challenge.”
Saying that, Hampnie blended into the darkness, not leaving a trace behind.
Ai lifted her head towards Yuri, who moved the gun away from her. This ferocious man had become an animal specimen that was shot down by a hunter.
Yuri’s knees buckled, and he fell to the floor like a giant corpse.
The various tools were gathered. Her change of clothes were packed, along with food, money (though she felt they were of use, she never used them before). Sleeping equipment was packed, along with rainy equipment …
It was late at night. Ai was packing her belongings. She rummaged through her sturdy backpack, and crammed in everything she felt she needed. There was a limit to how much she could move, so she checked through the various tools, picked accordingly, and confined herself to a few she had to bring. She could not bring anything unnecessary along.
So, how many snacks was she to bring?
Ai faced the large pile of personal snacks she stored, and groaned, before deciding that she would only bring candy along. She poured the transparent bottle over, emptied the candies into the backpack, and shoved aside the remaining snacks.
Her preparations were nearly done, and she lifted the bottle placed next to her. This little bottle had an elegant shape, with a spray installed. She removed the cap, and pressed the spray.
Anna’s scent spread across the room.
Ai had a whiff of this lemon, soap mist, waiting for it to stick upon her body.
On that night, Ai remained in her room. She applied perfume on herself for the first time.
She kept the bottle, slipped it into a bag, and stuffed it into her backpack. Her backpack was completely full. She sighed, looked over at the pile of sweets and books that were not packed, and finally gave up on them.
She brought quite a fair bit of items.
Ai sat on the floor, surveying the abandoned things in the room. The handmade clothes and dolls the grannies made for her birthday, the many tools belonging to her, and the ceiling that accompanied her for her entire lifetime.
If possible, she wanted to bring the air along, but she could not, so …
She carried the shovel her mother used.
She harbored the stories her foster father told her of.
She applied the perfume of her foster mother.
These were the only things she intended to bring along.
Once she was done with her preparations, Ai stood at the door, had a look at the room, and started to cry again. Upon thinking that she would never return again, she really felt the urge to cry, and had the urge to cry herself to sleep in the bed she did not use in the morning. She hoped that by doing so, everything would return to normal, and she could continue living like before, that it was all just a nightmare.
She knew it was impossible, but she had such an urge to think.
Ai yelled out loud, leapt at the pile of sweets, and in the blink of an eye, she gobbled up the treasure stove.
Cookies, nougats, roasted buns, fried bread, sweets, dried strawberries.
All the sweetness filling her mouth had her feeling that she was done enjoying all sweetness in life.
“…I don’t want to see sweets again.”
Saying those words, Ai was finally prepared to leave the village.
The sun remained asleep beyond the mountains, but in another few hours, dawn would break.
Ai stood at the entranceof the village, watching. The two combatants should be nearby, and begin killing each other when dawn breaks.
Ai had no intention to stop them. She stood there silently, waiting.
And after a while, the man she was waiting for appeared.
The Man-Eating Doll’s skin was whiter than the clear moon in the night, appearing in the darkness.
“…You? Tch, so you’ve been waiting here?”
“Morning. You can at least say a greeting, no, daddy?”
“Right, right, morning.”
Hampnie too was done packing his belongings. Ai was right.
“…So, what are you doing at this time? It’s a long time till sunrise.”
“What else? I’m running away. Getting out of hereas soon as I can.”
Hampnie said without a beat.
“There’s no way Yuri and I could have had a showdown. Are you kidding me?”
Ai suddenly smiled. Her smile appeared to be both a genuine one and a leery one.
She had expected Hampnie to say that.
Ai knew he was lying when he spoke up the previous day.
“…What are you smiling for? It’s really unnerving …”
“No, I’m just thinking that you’re really kind, daddy.”
Hampnie gave a disgusted smile.
“Ai, you’re mistaken. Taking death away from those who seek death isn’t a kind thing. I’m evil. Haven’t we gone through this already?”
“But even so…your motives are kind.”
Hampnie never expected her to say this, and for a moment, was taken aback.
“…Hmph, I don’t care.”
Saying that, he turned his back on the village.
“…What? You’re coming along? You aren’t going to be a gravekeeper now?”
Ai answered, and took a step back, carrying the shovel that she had dragged along.
“But I want to come along…you may not of so, and everyone else that’s dead might feel the same, but I’m coming along.”
“Because I hope to.”
Hampnie snorted at her reply. He turned around, not saying anything, merely conveying the words “As you wish” with his back.
So Ai didn’t answer as she began walking silently.
And the two started their two day journey.