Volume 1: Miss Shioriko and the Peculiar Guests (originally translated by TehPing at hellping.org, this chapter has been fully edited by ND)
Chapter One: Natsume Sōseki, Sōseki’s Complete Collection, new edition (Iwanami Shoten)
Ever since I was young, I have always struggled with reading.
Books with printed text were especially bad for me. After long periods of constantly flipping through the pages, reading the words one by one, I would somehow get so frustrated. My heart seemed to scream as it pounded in my chest, and my palms would be covered in sweat. In the end, I always wound up in a terrible mood. You could say that I had bibliophobia…
As a result, I suffered endlessly in school. Regardless of the subject, textbooks would always have printed type in them. Taking notes during lessons was alright, but my English and Modern Language grades were horrible, since I had to memorize passages from the textbooks. I could feel the hairs on my neck stand on end whenever I heard the phrase “reading comprehension”.
I told my teachers and my mother about my problem, but all I got was advice. They told me it couldn’t be helped that I hated books. They also said that I shouldn’t worry too much about it anyway; everyone had their own strengths and weaknesses.
I was really grateful for the reassurance, but it was a total misinterpretation of my problem. I didn’t hate reading books; I just couldn’t keep reading even if I wanted to. Whenever I started to read, my body started to resist.
This misunderstanding was never cleared up, and it was only partly because I was bad at explaining. I also looked nothing like the type to enjoy reading. Wherever I went, my large, tall, muscular figure stood out. Anyone who saw me would think that I was of a tough sort. I would often be invited to join sports clubs, and I was always chosen for games, meets, and sports festivals.
But I had no real interest in sports. I wanted to read. I often took up being a library committee member, and I never believed tidying up the library books was tedious like everyone else thought it was. I enjoyed looking down from one end of the bookshelf, admiring the rows and rows of book spines. There was no problem if I merely imagined the contents instead of opening the pages.
By the way, this “condition” of mine did not emerge naturally. My fear of books comes from somewhere; it is a story about Soseki’s complete works, and a prelude to my own story.
It was something that happened before I entered primary school. On a drizzly day in spring, I was reading alone in the living room on the second floor.
I suppose I should introduce my home.
My home is in Ofuna, a place located right between the cities of Yokohama and Kamakura. It is a must-see attraction for tourists riding the East Japan Railway Company line from Tokyo.
There was a great statue of the Buddhist deity Guanyin on the hill near Ofuna station. It looked very impressive when lit by night, but when you glimpsed it through the trees, the stark white face was somewhat frightening.
However, aside from the endless vigil of the Guanyin, Ofuna was a rather plain town.
There had been another treasure once besides the Guanyin statue. It was a cinematography studio, one of the rare few in Japan. It was abandoned by the time I entered middle school, but my grandmother spoke of it often. It had apparently been a keystone of the Golden Age of Japanese film, but I knew nothing about that. I was unfamiliar with movies.
My house was located beside the cinematography studio. It was called the “Goura Eatery”, but the Goura family’s specialty dish was nothing special: pork cutlets on rice, with green peas and pickles.
My great grandfather had opened this restaurant with my grandmother taking over afterward. In the past, the film studio’s staff would come to eat and our shop was always alive with activity. But by the time I grew up, our shop’s once bustling business had since withered away.
The shop’s reputation was not bad, but fewer and fewer staff came to eat in the same way that the studio made fewer and fewer films. In the end, my grandmother fired her workers and ran the shop alone.
My grandmother, my mother, and I—we all lived in the second floor above the restaurant. My father had died before I was born, and my mother gave birth to me when she came back to her hometown of Ofuna. Incidentally, my grandmother gave me the name “Daisuke”.
Since my mother worked at a food company in Yokohama, my grandmother was in charge of my upbringing. She would lecture me ten times for every single mistake I made, from day-to-day chores to how deeply I bowed. I was the only grandchild, but I don’t recall ever being pampered.
My grandmother looked kind and she had an ample chin. But her stare was as intense as the Guanyin’s on the hill.
Anyway, as I was saying. On that drizzly day in spring, I had gone to the living room on the second floor to look for picture books. I remember that one book I liked was “Guri and Gura”. Up until then, I was still an obedient boy who loved to read. I read not only picture books, but also a few children’s books written in simple language. I remember harassing the grown-ups to buy me new books whenever we went to the bookshop.
That spring day, I had tired of all the books at home. I felt bored. Lunchtime was ending, and the customer’s chatter and the blare of the television floated up from downstairs. I wanted to go outside, but it was impossible with such rain.
I walked out of the living room towards my grandmother’s room at the end of the corridor. It was a Japanese style room, facing north with an extremely low ceiling that made it feel cramped. (Our house had gone through many building extensions, so the layout of the rooms was somewhat inconsistent.)
Though my grandmother had told me not to enter her room without permission, I did it anyway—to look for books.
There was a large bookshelf along the wall with grandmother’s books in it. It seemed that my grandmother, the equal of the Guanyin Bodhisattva, was once a lovely girl enamored with literature. I heard that in her youth she spent almost all the pocket money she earned at the restaurant on books.
The books my grandmother collected were mostly old Japanese texts from the Meiji and the Taisho eras, and I was too young to understand their contents. But with so many books, I thought that she might have some books for children, too. I arrived with high expectations.
I pulled books out one after another, checking the contents inside. I did not understand kanji at the time, and I tossed the books aside on the floor without bothering to put them back. In the end, no one could tell if I had been looking a book or if I was only making a mess.
Once I created openings all over the bookshelf, I noticed a box at the lowest level filled with pocket-sized books. Since they were small, I thought they might have been children’s books, and brought my face closer to read. The names were printed on the backs, but unfortunately they were mostly kanji. There was only one book with a hiragana title. I slowly read it aloud:
What kind of book was it? Just as I was pulling the stack out from the shelf—
“What are you doing?”
A deep voice bellowed from above, shocking me thoroughly. I looked back and saw my grandmother standing there in cooking attire. She glared down at me. When had she come up here? Her long narrow eyes, so like the Guanyin Bodhisattva, terrified my younger self.
I sat down on the tatami mat, the books all strewn around me.
My grandmother had said another thing after warning me not to enter her room. I recalled it now—even if you enter, you are not allowed to touch the books on the shelf. They are what I treasure most.
I knew what I had to do. My grandmother was strict, but I would be forgiven if I apologized sincerely. That had been the case the time I lined up the restaurant chairs into a tunnel. I sat in proper seiza position and lowered my head.
I didn’t expect my grandmother’s reaction. She grabbed my shoulders violently and slapped me twice, stunning me. She continued ruthlessly, striking me with all the strength of an adult. My arms and legs slammed into the pile of books, and before I could even cry, she lifted me up. I nearly wet my pants at the sight of the Guanyin Bodhisattva’s terrifying sanpaku eyes. That was the first time I had been beaten by my grandmother, and the last.
“…You are not allowed to read these books,” Grandmother said hoarsely. “If you make this mistake again, you won’t be a child of our house any longer.”
I nodded my head weakly.
It was only when I became an adult that I considered this the reason behind my current “condition”. Of course, I cannot say for sure. I’m no psychologist.
But it is true that ever since I incurred my grandmother’s imperial wrath, I had been rendered unable to read print. And naturally I never entered her room afterward.
I do not know when my grandmother first noticed the change. For years, we never talked about the incident. Perhaps it was a painful memory for her as well.
It was more than fifteen years before we spoke of it again. My grandmother had been admitted to a nearby hospital, and I had come to visit.
All of a sudden she began to speak of this old thing.
“…that time I hit you…” she began.
“I was so shocked to see you in my room back then. You’d never gone in before, had you?”
She made it sound like it had happened a week ago, and it took me a while to even process what she was talking about.
We were different than how we had been fifteen years ago, both my grandmother and me. I had grown extraordinarily tall through puberty, while my grandmother, already short, became ever thinner and frailer. As her health worsened, the shop would take breaks from business more and more frequently.
We were headed into the rainy season and water was pouring down outside. Whenever the seasons changed, my grandmother’s migraines would start to act up. This time she wasn’t recovering on her own, so she was admitted to a hospital where they could take a look at her. I was at my busiest back then. I was looking for a job at the time and had visited her in the hospital right after an informational seminar with a company. It was talking about something that happened when I was five while I was still wearing that suit.
“I didn’t plan on hitting you at first. It was my fault, I suppose.”
I saw how lucid my grandmother’s eyes were, and I felt that the atmosphere had somewhat darkened.
“No, that was my fault,” I replied. “I came in without permission. Don’t worry about it.”
I never bore any grudge against her for that. It had been the first and last time she hit me. But the expression she wore remained unhappy.
“I often thought about how if you could read, your life would be so different,” she said.
I rubbed my eyebrows. Yes, perhaps. During my time at university, I gave up my insistence on reading books and accepted an invitation to the judo club. Over those four years, I attained a respectable 3rd Dan, and for my weight division I was ranked one of the highest in the district tournament. I suppose that I had gotten stronger from that. My neck and shoulders had become very sturdy.
“…It doesn’t matter that I can’t read books.”
Or so I said. But it was a half-truth. Certainly, my university life had been fulfilling—but certainly, it could have been very different.
“Is that so?”
Grandmother sighed as she closed her eyes. I thought that she was drifting to sleep, but after a while she started to talk again.
“…What sort of person will you marry?”
The change in topic was so sudden, and I was taken aback yet again. Just like when she started talking about beating me at five years old, her words were so strange as to be momentarily incomprehensible. The whole situation was just strange.
“It’s too early to talk about marriage,” I said, looking towards the open door. Maybe it would be a good idea to call to one of the nurses passing by.
“It might be nice for you to marry a girl who likes books. You can’t read them, but she’ll definitely tell you all sorts of interesting things about them…well, but it’d be hard to make that work. Bookworms mostly only like other bookworms,” she said teasingly.
I did not know whether she was joking, or if her consciousness was just drifting somewhere out of this world.
She seemed to remember something as she added, “…Once I die, I’ll leave all my books to you two to handle as you please.”
I felt like my face was splashed with cold water. I wasn’t ever a person who could put on a calm front and adapt to the situation quickly.
“Wh-what are you saying…isn’t this too early?” I muttered softly.
My grandfather and my father had died before I was born, so this was the first time I ever heard kin of mine say things like this. Grandmother closed her eyes as she gave a wry smile. Apparently she was picking up the anxiety written all over my face.
The examination had revealed a tumor in her brain, and she did not have much time before her death. I didn’t tell her this, but she probably knew from my and my mother’s attitudes. I was not going to fool the eyes of Guanyin Bodhisattva.
I finally understood what my grandmother was trying to tell me.
These words were ones she wanted her grandson to hear before it happened—her last words.
By the time I thought again about my grandmother’s books, it had been more than a year after the funeral—the midsummer of August 2010.
After graduating university, I kept living at my house in Ofuna. At noon I finally managed to get out of bed, and as I did, I heard my mother yelling for me outside the house.
“Come down here, Dai-needajob.”
I was puzzled as to why my mother was home. She would normally be at her company right now. But then I realized it was Sunday—honestly, I could not seem to tell the difference between Sunday and any other day since I graduated.
Yawning, I walked out of the room and saw that the door at the end of the corridor was open. Mom must have been in grandmother’s Japanese-style room.
My forehead hit the door frame hard when I tried to enter. The beam creaked.
“What are you doing, Dai-needajob? Stop wrecking the house.”
Mom stood in the middle of the room. Her head nearly brushed against the lampshade on the ceiling. Though she isn’t as tall as me, she still is taller than average.
“The door frame here is really low,” I retorted, holding my head.
(I mentioned earlier that due to the many expansions we made to the house, the layout of all the rooms became a little weird. The frame is only a few centimeters lower, but it’s still a meaningful difference.)
“The sleep’s still in your eyes,” said Mom. “Nobody’s hit the frame before.”
I don’t think so. There is some black duct tape fastened to the door frame, and it’s been there since before I cared to inspect it. Someone has to have walked into it before. It’s too sad to think that only I have ever been this careless.
“I’m cleaning up the stuff your grandmother left behind…” she began, and then paused, sighing. “Well, having two tall people in here is just downright unpleasant. Let’s sit down.”
And so I sat down cross-legged as I faced my mother, who sat in seiza. She has a wide chin, long narrow eyes, and a habit of remorseless cruelty. Height aside, she is basically a chip off my grandmother’s block. Mom has two older sisters, my aunts, and she resembles my grandmother most between them.
But she doesn’t seem too happy about inheriting any traits from my grandmother. She’s probably fuming, actually, because they look identical. I have never seen Mom talk with grandmother calmly for more than five minutes. She probably left home to work instead of taking over the Goura Eatery because she wanted to avoid meeting grandmother too much.
“The anniversary of your grandmother’s death has passed,” said Mom. “I’ve been packing up her things and wondering what to do with them.”
It’s just as she says. Upright cardboard boxes sat all around us, their tops folded. My grandmother’s clothes and jewelry were already divided amongst our aunts, and everything else in the house remained untouched. This messy scene made me remember being five years old in this room. To banish the thought, I swept my eyes around the room. Then I noticed something important.
“Where are her books?”
The bookshelf covered the entire wall, but it was empty. Not a single book was left behind.
“The books are over here,” said Mom. “I did say that I’ve been packing up her things, didn’t I? Are you listening?”
Mom knocked on a few boxes beside her.
“Isn’t there a nursing home on the corner of Sekiya?” she asked. “I’ve got an acquaintance there, building some sort of reading room. So lately he’s been collecting books. He was delighted when I offered him the books in our house, saying that he wants as many as he can get. I told him that I’d just send over our very own home-living slacker, Dai-needajob.”
“Why do you call me that around other people?” I groaned.
Of course, “Dai-needajob” will refer to me. The Dai in Daisuke is appended to “Need a Job”, and she actually calls me by this nickname in front of all sorts of people.
“But it’s true. You slack at home and you don’t work.”
“…It’s not like I want to slack and not work,” I muttered.
I still have not found a job. I did receive a job offer from a construction company in Yokohama, but the company closed down in February of this year. I’m still attending some inauguration exercises even now, but I just never can get through to the interview stage. I’m not a student of any famous or prestigious university, I have no real specialty other than my physique. And the economic downturn just makes it all worse.
“You’re being too picky here,” she chided. “Try taking the JSDF’s acceptance tests, or the police’s. You did inherit my strong body, so you should do something with it.”
I did not answer. This isn’t the first time I’ve been advised to try for the JSDF or the police. My dan in judo helps, but after 4 years of the sport, I clearly understand that I’m not someone who fights to win. I don’t find those jobs out of my league physically, but I want a simpler occupation than having to ensure the safety of the people, or the peace in the country.
“About the books,” I said, changing the topic. I pushed this talk about civil service jobs to the back of my mind for now.
“Grandmother really treasured these books,” I said. “You don’t have to donate them all…”
“There’s no problem,” said Mom brusquely. “She said ‘Once I die, I’ll leave my books to you’, or didn’t you hear her?”
“I did, but she wouldn’t want us to treat them like this…”
I thought grandmother’s intention was to let us share the books, as long as we cherished them. However, mom merely shook her head hard.
“Come on, Daisuke. Her catchphrase is basically ‘you can’t take anything with you when you go’. It was the same when your grandfather died; she dealt with his leftovers without feeling sentimental. That’s how she is.”
Now that I think about it, I don’t recall grandmother preserving anything of my grandfather’s. He died a long time ago. I heard it was when mom first entered elementary school. He got into a traffic accident on one hot summer day, no different from the one presently outside the window. He had been returning from the Kawasaki Temple.
“I admit things would be different if you would read them,” said Mom. “Will you read these books?”
No, I won’t. I can’t. If I kept them, they’d just be put on display anyway. It might be good to give them to someone who would read them.
“Then, how about I drive and deliver them?” I suggested.
I quickly looked around the room. The books were not put away, but rather scattered all over the tatami. I had to box them up before I left.
“Sure. But before you leave, there’s something I want to discuss with you.”
Mom lifted a set of books beside her and placed it before me. There were approximately 30 books in total, and each one was smaller and thinner than your usual book—the size of a single shonen manga volume.
I felt as if a barb had dug into me. The memories came rushing back; these were definitely the same set of books I was looking at back then, but now I noticed the name of the books. “Soseki’s Complete Collection”. This set included And Then, by Natsume Soseki.
“I thought she might had some personal savings she forgot in her books, so I opened them all up, one by one.”
So that was what she was doing with these books. Mom ignored my surprise, took out a book from the case entitled Volume Eight: And Then, and showed me the reverse side of its thin wax paper cover.
“See, I found this!”
On the right of this normally blank space, thin brushstrokes were arranged in straight lines. The words weren’t really elegant, and the balance and spacing between each letter was delicately uneven:
To Mr. Tanaka Yoshio.
These were the only two lines there. “Natsume Soseki” was written right in the middle, while “To Mr. Tanaka Yoshio” was near the filing.
“This is Natsume Soseki’s signature, right? It’ll be amazing if it’s the real thing!” exclaimed Mom, her eyes dazzling.
I just couldn’t summon the enthusiasm. It really would be amazing, if it were real, but it’s whatever if it’s just a fake.
I took the book, flipped it open, and the stench of old paper filled the air. I felt a chill in my heart upon seeing the text laid out; I frantically flipped to the last page and found the publishing date at the top edge. It was the year Showa 31, July 27th, and the publisher was Iwanami Shoten.
“…It’s the year before grandmother was married.”
I was puzzled. Was Natsume Soseki still alive at that time? I thought that he died a long time ago.
“Who’s this Tanaka person?”
My grandmother’s name, Goura Kinuko, was completely different. If Natsume Soseki really signed out to this person, why did these books end up in my grandmother’s hands?
“I don’t know either,” Mom remarked. “Maybe the previous owner wrote that. The book does look like it came from an old bookstore.”
Mom reached her hand out and flipped through the pages. There was a bookmark the size of a business card placed inside, and written on it seemed to be the price of the whole collection. The writing was a little faded, but the words could be distinguished as “34 volumes, first edition, 3500 yen”. I’m not too sure of prices in the old days, but if it’s an entire book collection, isn’t this just inexpensive? If it was something someone wrote as a prank—
On the corner of the price card, it said “Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia”. My mind immediately thought of a a beautiful profile in a slightly dim shop, bent over a book. It was the bookstore near my high school.
“I want to know how much worth these books have. If they’re collector’s items, we shouldn’t give them away. But I don’t know of anyone who could tell,” sighed Mom. “Do you?”
I got off my scooter near the Kita-Kamakura Station and put my helmet under the seat.
From the basket at the front of the scooter, I took a shopping bag carrying “Soseki’s Complete Collection”. After many years, I stood in front of the Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia. The surroundings had not changed since my time in High School, just like how I had not. There was a narrow alley too small for a car, an old wooden house, a store display, rusted and swinging, and not many pedestrians to be seen.
This shop had probably been around since my grandmother’s youth. It must have been impossible for a girl born into a diner to save enough pocket money to buy new books. She was able to collect so many because she could get old ones cheaply at stores like this. Or so I thought all of a sudden; a seemingly natural place for my thoughts to wander.
I came here to have the owner of the shop appraise “Soseki’s Complete Collection”, and also to ask if my grandmother really came here. I was additionally a little hopeful to get to know something about that beautiful girl I saw in my second year of high school.
For six years after that day I would look into the shop each time I passed, but my eyes only ever came upon the white-haired shopkeeper, glowering as he paced the store. Of course, it would have been awkward to simply walk in for no other reason than to ask about her. However, I had some proper business to deal with today, so an inquiry should be no problem.
On the sliding door of this old bookstore hung a sign that announced “we are open”. I glanced inside and found it to be the same, now as always. I saw several large bookshelves and a counter opposite them.
Someone sat behind the counter.
It was not the aloof shop owner, but appeared instead to be a young, small girl. She had her head lowered and I couldn’t see her face. I felt my body heat up to think that this might be the person I had seen back then, and before I realized it, I opened the sliding door. Its sound was audible.
The shop attendant lifted her head, and my surging temperature ebbed a little. Her eyes were wide under a short fringe, and her skin was tanned like an elementary school student on summer break, dressed by a white top that recalled a high schooler’s uniform. She looked different from the girl from before. They were not the same person.
A high school student working part time, or perhaps the owner’s daughter. Their faces had a distinct resemblance. She looked over at the paper bag in my hands.
“Ah, are you here to buy some old books?”
Her welcome was very lively. No, I wasn’t here to buy or sell, but just to appraise the value of this collection with a signature inside. Perhaps this is rude of me.
Regardless, turning back now would be awkward. I decided to ask her about it anyway.
I noted that between the bookshelves, still more books were stacked all on the floor, and it would impossible for someone my size to go down the aisle. What’s more, it was practically impossible for anyone to get to the books at the bottom shelves; how is a customer supposed to buy books here in the first place?
The girl stood up from behind the counter. She looked younger than me, and her blouse and skirt were from my alma mater. Judging from her school dress, even though they were in summer vacation, she probably had some club activities this morning.
“…I’m not here to buy old books,” I said after a moment, “but to ask you to help me check something. Is that alright? It’s about these books. My grandmother bought them from here.”
I paused to let her respond, but she simply waited for me to continue. I put the paper bag with the “Soseki’s Complete Collection” on the table and took out Volume Eight: And Then, removing the book from its wax paper sleeve. I showed her the sleeve’s reverse side, and she narrowed her eyes as she brought her face close to it.
“The signature,” I said.
“Wow! It says Natsume Soseki! Is this the real thing?”
For an instant, I didn’t know to respond. I never thought she’d be asking me my own question.
“Haven’t got a clue,” I said. “This is why I’m here.”
“Oh, I see… hm, what should I do?”
The girl folded her arms as her eyes met mine. Is she going to be asking all the questions here?
“…You can’t tell if this is the real thing?”
“Ah, it doesn’t look like we can. The shopkeeper’s not here, and I’m not sure how I’d be able to tell something like that.”
Her response was unwavering.
“When will the shopkeeper be back?”
The moment I asked, the girl gave a frown, and her eyebrows touched.
“…The shopkeeper’s hospitalized at the moment.”
She lowered her voice a little. Now that she mentioned it, the shop does look like it should be closed. I guess the shopkeeper isn’t feeling too well.
“No… well, it was a leg injury…” she said. “If anyone sends books here, I’ll have to bring it to the hospital so it can be appraised. Man, this is so annoying!”
The explanation had become a little rant all of a sudden. In any case, I was a little shocked to learn that the owner was still working even from the hospital. Can this old bookstore really run like that?
“But it’s at Ofuna General, so it’s not too far,” she said. “By bike, it’s a 15 minute ride from here.”
“…Ah, so it’s there,” I muttered.
I couldn’t help the quiet outburst. It was near my house, and whenever someone mentioned any hospital in conversation, I immediately thought of the Ofuna General Hospital. There my mother gave birth to me, and there my grandmother died.
“Anyway, just leave them here for now,” she said. “I still have club activities this summer, and I don’t know if I can take a trip to the hospital anytime soon. Is it alright if it takes a little while?”
I thought about it. It’s kind of a pain to demand that she go to the hospital now, since I’m not selling them if it’s the real thing. It would be inconvenient for her to have to bring them back and forth.
Before I could tell her, she asked, “Erm, do you by chance visit Ofuna General often?”
After a moment, I said, “It’s near my house.”
Her expression immediately brightened.
“Well then! How about you head to the hospital on your own? I’ll contact the owner first, and the appraisal can be done for you immediately.”
I’ve never heard of anyone going to a hospital to appraise old books, and most importantly, the shop won’t gain any profit out of this. That scary shop owner might even throw a fit.
“No… that’s a bit much… ”
She did not hear my words at all, having already opened her phone. She quickly typed out a message, and all in an instant she sent it out, closed her phone, and grinned at me large and toothy.
“The mail’s sent! Now you can head over there whenever you want.”
There was no way I could refuse anymore. I could only nod my head in silence.
Approximately 15 minutes after that, I reached the parking lot of the Ofuna General Hospital.
The white, six-storied building was dazzling under the midsummer sunshine. This hospital became the largest in the area ten years ago, when they refurbished it; there was a wide courtyard in front of the entrance, but there were no patients coming down the walkways or sitting on the benches. There was only the sound of crickets in the air.
Carrying the paper bag with Soseki’s Complete Collection, I passed through the automatic doors and entered the building. The air-conditioned hall was filled with outpatients.
Taking the staircase to the surgical ward, I wondered why I was doing this; I hadn’t been here since I retrieved my grandmother’s dead body.
My grandmother departed a month after our conversation. Once she got the formal diagnosis, she said that she wanted her final memory to be the Kusatsu Onsen resort. Her condition was still rather stable, so the attending doctor gave his permission to her wish.
Together with me and my mother, she enjoyed the onsen trip energetically and thoroughly. Even her little quibbles with my mother were fun, and to look at her, you’d never know she was ill. However, a week after we returned home to Ofuna, she fainted and died without regaining consciousness. Her life went out like a flame on a candlewick, seemingly planned, and our relatives felt shock before they felt anguish.
I recorded my name on the nurse duty book, and went to the room the girl sent me to. Before I was mentally prepared, I found the room. I let out a soft sigh, gathered myself, and knocked on the door.
“Please excuse me.”
There was no answer. I knocked on the door again, but there was no reply. I peered in through the slightly ajar door.
I was stunned.
It was an elegant and bright room with one bed. The adjustable hospital bed was located by the window. The mattress caved in slightly at the middle, and a long haired woman in cream-colored pajamas lay still with her eyes closed.
She must have fallen asleep while reading, because the open book was resting between her knees. The bridge of her nose was delicate in their place below her eyebrows, and a pair of thick-rimmed spectacles rested on them. Her lips were slightly open, and her gentle, beautiful face resembled a certain someone—the person I saw in Biblia six years ago. Her face was a little slimmer, but the other things hadn’t changed much. She was much prettier this way.
There were so many stacks of old books lined up on the bed, it looked like a miniature roadway. She had brought so many books over, more than someone needed to just kill time. The hospital staff didn’t tell her off?
She suddenly woke up, rubbed her eyes, and looked over at me.
“…Is that you, Aya?”
She said a name I didn’t know. Her voice was soft, but I was taken aback by how clear it was. Now I knew the name of that girl from before.
“Are the books here…?”
She was mistaking me for someone, probably because she was looking at me over the top of her glasses. Staying silent any longer would be bad, so I forced a cough or two to clear my throat.
“…Good afternoon,” I said, clearly enough for her to hear.
Her shoulders leapt in shock, and she moved to adjust her glasses. In doing so she knocked over the book she was reading, and it dropped off the bed.
“Ah.” There was a little cry.
Barely thinking about it, I leapt into the room and caught the book with one hand, though only just. It wasn’t very large dimension-wise, but it was extremely heavy. Its title filled the white cover; it read, Farewell Photography. August 2nd at the mountaintop hotel. It was a little aged, and part of the cover was blackened and crumpled.
I was pretty pleased with myself, but when I came up to look, I found her with the blanket up to her chest. Her hand was on the nurse call button on the wall, and her wide eyes betrayed fear. Anyone would be shocked to see an muscular stranger barge into the room. I scrambled to a standing position and put some distance between us.
“Sorry, I’m here to ask about my grandmother’s books. I went to the shop in Kita-Kamakura, and the girl there told me to come here…did you not receive the message?”
Her hand, about to press the call button, stopped abruptly. She looked back to the laptop placed on the side table, narrowed her eyes to look at the screen—and had her face flush red.
“…I’m really sorry.”
I’m really sorry? I looked at her doubtfully. She lowered her head deeply, and her beautiful hair played down in front of me. This was the first time I’ve had someone give me a look like that.
“S-sorry…erm, my little sister caused you…quite some trouble…” Her voice was barely audible, and as she stumbled here and there, her ears got redder.
Her apology continued. “Sorry for—making you—come all the way here…I’m the owner of the Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia, Shinokawa Shioriko.”
I finally get it. The girl in the shop was her little sister, and she sent a mail to the owner. In other words, the owner changed at some point.
“Someone else owned the shop before, right? A man with some white in his hair.”
“That was my father…”
She nodded. “He died last year…and I took over this shop…”
“I see. My sympathy, then, regarding your loss,” I said, and then I bowed to her. Someone in my family died last year, too. I felt a closeness to her.
The room immediately fell into silence. She avoided eye contact and merely looked somewhere around my throat. I didn’t expect her to have such an an introverted and shy personality; she was still beautiful, of course, but it just felt somehow lacking. How is someone with this personality supposed to receive customers? It’s not my business, but I can’t help but worry about it.
“Did you help take care of the shop in your father’s place a few years ago?” I asked.
She froze, but I soldiered on.
“I occasionally passed by the shop during my high school days. My school was near there.”
“W-well…yes, I did once in a while…”
Her shoulders relaxed somewhat. It seemed like she’d eased up to me just a little.
She timidly reached her hand out. Does she want a handshake? I put the paper bag down and wiped my sweaty hand off my jeans. Then, she said gently…
“…The book, if you could…”
I was wrong. Meanwhile, I was still holding Farewell, Photography.
“This one must have been expensive,” I said, hoping to defuse the awkwardness. I handed her the book as I spoke.
She tilted her head. I couldn’t tell whether she was shaking it or nodding.
“This is the first edition…but it isn’t preserved too well…that brings it to about 250,000 yen.”
Her calmness surprised me somewhat. This dusty book? I looked at the cover again, my mind blank, but she didn’t continue her explanation. She put the 250,000 yen book on the nightstand as if it were any other book and held out her hand again. What is it this time?
“…May I look at the books you’re holding?”
I looked over at where she was looking, and realized it was the paper bag holding Soseki’s Complete Collection. I felt really bad for what I was about to say; it would be so troublesome for her. I licked dry lips.
“Actually, I’m not here to sell them. When I was clearing out my grandmother’s old things, I found a signature here… and it seems the series was bought from your shop a long time ago. Can you help me find out how much value this has?”
If she showed even the slightest bit of hesitation, I would have accepted the books back immediately. However, Shinokawa Shioriko continued to stare at me, and she seemed like a different person than before. I saw iron in her eyes.
“Please let me see it,” she said, clearly.
“Ah, it’s the Iwanami Shoten new edition.”
She looked into the bag and her eyes were immediately sparkling; she looked just like a child opening a birthday present. She extracted the volumes from the case, one by one, starting from the first. She flipped through them. The names of the works were printed on the spine, including titles I was familiar with, like I am a Cat and Botchan.
Her smile grew as she made her way through the set. Occasionally she would nod her head, narrow her eyes, or even clumsily attempt a whistle; the last was something I heard her do once, in the past. Apparently she was unaware of how she looked when she did this; it was probably a habit of hers when she was engrossed in books.
That’s the one, I thought. This was the expression etched in my memories, the face she made when she was lost in a book. She continued to read, and I pulled up a chair and sat down quietly.
She suddenly stopped whistling. Volume Eight: And Then was placed on her lap. She lowered her head, seemingly troubled, but merely glanced at the signature on the wax paper sleeve. She flipped back through the pages, and suddenly leaned over the label that said “34 volumes, first edition, 3500 yen”. She seemed interested in the price for some reason.
Shinokawa placed the book with the signature on her knees and continued to look into the other books. Finally, she flipped again through Volume Eight: And Then, slowly.
“I was right,” she said softly. She looked up at me.
“Sorry to keep you waiting for so long. I think I’ve got the gist of it.”
“So what’s going on?”
“Unfortunately, this signature is a fake,” she said.
She was apologetic, but I wasn’t particularly surprised. It’s what I thought would happen after all.
“So Soseki didn’t write that signature?”
“Yes. The time periods don’t add up. Natsume Soseki died in Taisho 5, and this complete collection was released in this ‘new edition’ in Showa 31…which is to say, forty years later.”
There was no longer any doubt as to its authenticity. You couldn’t die and then forty years later sign a book.
“Then are these books not worth much?”
“Yes…this collection happens to be the economy edition. It was reprinted frequently, and there are many of this collection in old book shops,” she said. “However, the commentary is rich, and the packaging is elaborate. They may be commonplace, but they’re fine books. I like them very much.”
She spoke as if she were praising a dear old friend. Her expression and voice were completely devoid of the timidity she showed before. She looked calmer. This was probably who she really was inside.
“Iwanami Shoten was the first company to publish Soseki’s Complete Collection,” she continued. “The founder, Shigeo Iwanami, had a close relationship with Soseki, and he often corresponded with Soseki’s followers. Together, they published the first complete collection, and after several years, they printed revised editions. This cheaper edition isn’t any lower in quality. Soseki’s diary was first revealed to the public in this edition of the collection, and the commentaries for each book were added by one of these followers, Komiya Toyotaka.”
Her explanation was full of life. The more I listened, the more absorbed I became.
“Then, there are more editions of Soseki’s Complete Collection?”
“Iwanami Shoten isn’t the only one. A whole assortment of publishers have run editions under the same name. If we count runs that didn’t finish printing all the copies they planned to, then there should be at least thirty different editions.”
Hardly even thinking about it, I said, “That’s incredible.”
“Isn’t it? I think he might be the most loved author in all Japan,” she agreed, nodding.
But I wasn’t just praising the great author. I was complimenting Shinokawa, too, for her fluid explanation. I felt both pained and relieved that I couldn’t express myself properly; my feelings were complicated.
I glanced at the leftover book. Volume Eight: And Then.
“I suppose the signature on this book is just some random doodle, then?”
Usually so quick with a response, she now paused for the first time.
She looked so uneasy, her eyebrows were practically touching. I couldn’t help but wonder what was wrong.
“Is something the matter?”
“I don’t suppose it’s a big deal, but there’s something I don’t really understand… maybe this is a personal question, but was your grandmother someone who would ever mark up her books?”
“Eh? No, I guess not,” I said, shaking my head. The possibility was hard to imagine. “She really treasured those books…she didn’t even let family members touch them. She would have been furious if one of us did, even accidentally.”
Touching grandmother’s books was a taboo in the family, and me and all our relatives knew this. Even my mother, who was on bad terms with my grandmother, did not dare to do this. Nobody really cared to do it anyway, since no one besides her liked books.
“I think I have a plausible explanation,” I said. “Though it would be a different story if her own name was written here…”
Shinokawa took out Volume Eight: And Then from its case and opened the cover. From my chair, I leaned forward and looked at the signature again.
To Mr. Tanaka Yoshio.
The brushstrokes were very light, with fine lines, and looking closely at it, the hand that wrote it seemed female. It was not unique handwriting, and it would be easy to imitate. But this was certainly not grandmother’s handwriting.
“Someone sold this collection to Biblia, and my grandmother bought it afterward,” I concluded.
She lifted her face away from the book.
“…Is that right?” she said.
“Was it written by the previous owner? Or by the person called ‘Yoshio Tanaka?’”
“No, I don’t think that’s it.”
She took out the book’s price card and showed it to me. 34 volumes, first edition, 3500 yen.
“This style of price card was used when my grandfather first opened Biblia. That was 45, 46 years ago.”
In other words, grandmother bought Soseki’s Complete Collection around then. If we were to go by the Western Calendar, 45, 46 years ago would be—I could not calculate the numbers all of a sudden.
“This price card doesn’t say ‘there were words written on it,’” she said, pointing to the card. “If any used bookstore purchases a book, they would first note their condition, as I’ve always done. Anyone would notice words written in such a conspicuous place, and so we would indicate it on the price card. Otherwise customers might come back and demand compensation.”
I see. Now I totally understood. It was weird not to have a note on the price card indicating that the book was “vandalized”.
“Therefore, when your grandmother bought this collection from my family’s shop, it did not have the fake signature on it.”
I folded my arms. This situation seemed to get weirder and weirder. If we were correct, the person who forged this signature could not even exist. How could that be possible?
“Ah…” I suddenly thought of something. “…Maybe Grandfather wrote it.”
“He died several decades ago, and I never met him. I think he accidentally touched grandmother’s bookcase once, and they got into an argument…”
According to Mom, Grandfather was nearly chased out of the house. If he not only touched the book, but left some words on it—it would make sense why I was beaten when I touched it. Perhaps she recalled that painful memory. If you make this mistake again, you won’t be a child of our house any longer. She probably remembered grandfather’s vandalism when she said those words.
“I really can’t think of who else who would write it. Nobody dared to touch that bookshelf,” I said.
But Shinokawa shook her head slightly.
“I don’t think so.”
“I don’t think it was done by anyone else in your family…I think your grandmother wrote it,” she concluded.
“Why?” How could she be so sure?
“If it were someone else who scribbled on it, your grandmother wouldn’t have just left it at that. But book doesn’t have any signs of an attempt to erase the words…and if it was difficult to erase, it would be easy to buy another Volume Eight to replace it. As I said, this book isn’t expensive. There have been a lot of reprints, and when they do reprint, the new bookstores stock them for a long time.”
“But…maybe she didn’t leave it alone. Maybe it’s just that someone wrote on it, but she didn’t realize…”
Halfway through my justification, my tongue stopped moving. That would be the least likely thing. The Guanyin Bodhisattva of the Goura family would never be that careless. If someone really touched the books in that room, she would definitely find out.
Did grandmother really write that?
If that were the case, it couldn’t be a simple doodle. Grandmother must have done it for a reason. I frowned over this as I folded my elbows.
“There’s something else I’m concerned about,” said Shinokawa. “It’s about the price card…”
I didn’t know what to say. I lifted my head, but Shinokawa was looking at her knees, seemingly in shock. Her long and beautiful black hair covered her face.
“Ah… I’m very sorry…” she muttered softly.
She was back to the way she was before she saw Soseki’s Complete Collection. I had no idea what she was apologizing for.
“Huh? What is it?”
“I’m, ah… so sorry to trouble you…”
“Eh? Sorry, but can you please repeat that again?”
She was speaking too softly and I craned my neck to hear, but Shinokawa was retreating almost right up to the window. What did I do wrong? Her white throat throbbed, and she spoke in a peculiar voice.
“I… I only wanted to see if the signature was authentic… but, I ended up saying too much…”
This just confused me more.
“People used to say that I… that I just couldn’t stop talking when it came to books.”
I noticed my profile reflected off the window. A brooding, muscular man sitting on a round chair, his eyebrows angled down, his narrow and long eyes glaring, all enveloped in an aura of murderous intent. I had inadvertently invoked the stare of my grandmother, which came out whenever I was deep in thought.
“I—I’m really sorry for taking so much of your time, so…”
She went to put Volume Eight: And Then back in the bag. Before she could finish her sentence, I cut her off.
“I don’t mind what you’re doing at all!”
I instantly realized I was too loud. She trembled in fright as the paper bag and book fell from her hands. She flailed her arms, flustered, but she managed to catch them before they dropped onto the floor. She heaved a sigh of relief, but then, realizing that I was staring at her, she covered her face with the bag, embarrassed.
“…Please, go on with what you were saying,” I said in a softer voice.
She looked at me worriedly from behind the bag. She was practically a different person from earlier, when she had made her explanation so eloquently.
I spoke again. “When I was young… something bad happened to me about books, and I couldn’t ever read them afterwards. But I’ve always wanted to read books, so you just telling me about them makes me very happy.”
I said this without meaning to. Up until this point, nobody understood this “condition” of mine. She widened her eyes at me, probably not understanding either. I was just about to give up, but then she moved the bag off her face, and her wide black eyes showed signs of life. It seemed like a switch was pressed, the change in her was so immediate.
“You can’t read books because you were scolded by your grandmother?”
Her voice was clear and definitive. This time, I was the shocked one.
“How did you know?”
“I believe your grandmother was the kind of person who would be furious if anyone accidentally touched her bookshelf. Then if ‘nobody dared to touch it’, it means no one besides her… and if she would become that angry, I suppose it isn’t surprising that now you can’t read books…”
I was at a loss for words. She hit the bullseye so easily. As long as it was related to books, she knew everything.
I put my hands on my knees and sat down again. I wanted her to continue.
“I dearly love old books,” she said. “I feel that these books, handed down as they are, will carry stories in them… and not only the stories on their pages.”
She paused and looked at me right in the eyes, as if acknowledging my existence for the first time.
“May I know your name?”
“Mr. Goura, actually, there is something else I’m concerned about.”
I was startled to hear her use my name. It felt as if we’d become a little closer.
She again handed me the price card with the words 34 volumes, first edition, 3500 yen.
“There is a stamp of ownership on this price card.”
“Eh…? Ah, yes.”
She took out a book from Soseki’s Complete Collection on her bedsheet and removed the cover. It was Volume Twelve: Kokoro. She opened the cover. There was no signature on the inner lining paper; instead, there was a hydrangea-styled stamp on it.
“This is a stamp of ownership, a mark the owner puts on his or her collection of books. It used to be more popular in China and Japan, and there were all sorts of different stamps, varying according to the owner’s taste. They’re like any other stamps; having them be words was more common, but there were also patterned stamps like this. The person who used this stamp might have liked hydrangeas.”
I didn’t know this at all, and I felt somewhat impressed. Then something occurred to me.
“Then, that means this book should have a stamp too?”
I asked as I looked at Volume Eight: And Then on her knees. If there had been such a stamp, it would have been obvious.
“No, and that’s what is so strange here. And Then is the only book that doesn’t have an ownership stamp on it, even though the other volumes had them.”
“…I suppose it is strange.”
I lowered my head and sighed. Amongst the 34 volumes, there were books with stamps, and no signature, and then there was one book with a signature, but no stamp. I was more and more confounded.
“How did your grandmother come to purchase the collection at my family’s bookstore? Did you never ask?”
“No… I only knew she bought lots of books before she got married… maybe my mom and my aunts weren’t too clear about this. Nobody was really concerned about these old books anyway.”
“…Is that so?” She laid a fist on her hip. “In that case, the only thing I can think of is that Volume Eight was…”
Shinokawa suddenly stopped talking, and I hurriedly cast my eyes to the glass window. No one was glaring at her this time. It certainly was not because of my stare.
I prompted her to continue, anxious. “What about Volume Eight?”
She seemed to be very hesitant. After a while, she suddenly put her finger on her lips.
“Can we just keep this between us?”
“I think we’ll be infringing on your grandmother’s privacy.”
I hesitated slightly, then nodded. “…Alright.”
Had my grandmother been alive, it would be different, but she was a year in her grave. As her grandson, I’d be forgiven if I listened in on her private matters. I really wanted to know more.
“Actually, all the answers were there once you brought this book to me, Mr. Goura.”
“What do you mean?”
“Without this signature or the price card, nobody would know this book was bought from an antique bookstore. So your grandmother probably wanted your family to believe it had been, Mr. Goura.”
I widened my eyes. I had no idea what she meant at all.
“Wait, so my grandmother bought this book from the Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia, and then she made the signature afterward, right?”
“That was what had thought until just now, but there seems to be something more complicated going on.”
She flipped open Volume Eight: And Then, and touched the signature on the inner cover paper.
“This signature is styled like a dedicatory signature. Normally, in such situations…”
She stopped speaking when she realized I was lost.
“In a dedication, you write a note to someone else as a token of appreciation or admiration. Then it’s signed with the author’s own name and the other name, of the person the book is dedicated to.”
Dedicatory signature. I see. I learned something new again, and nodded for her to continue.
“There isn’t any fixed way to write a dedicatory signature, but normally, the other party’s signature is written in the middle, while the sender is written on the same side… and this sender would be the author. But this book has it completely reversed.”
This is the same as writing an address. It was true that Natsume Soseki was written in the middle, while To Mr. Tanaka Yoshio was written on the left side.
“Maybe it’s simply because grandmother wasn’t clear on the usual way?”
“Maybe… but there’s something still more curious. Mr. Goura, why would your grandmother write the sender’s name as a dedicatory signature? If she wanted to pass this book off as an famously autographed copy, she would simply need to write Soseki’s name. There’s no need for another name on it.”
I had been wondering about who this Yoshio Tanaka was since the first moment I saw this book—who was that person?
“…I think it’s the other way around,” said Shinokawa.
Her tone was flat, but her black eyes betrayed a glint of excitement. I was again attracted by her words, and brought my chair closer to the bed.
“…Other way around?”
“The script is a little uneven for someone who purportedly wrote this in one sitting. What if this book was originally signed by Tanaka Yoshio, rather than Natsume Soseki? And then afterwards, your grandmother added Soseki’s name… it’s natural if you think about it this way.”
“Eh, but… this man Tanaka isn’t an author, so why did he put a signature on it?”
“I don’t think he intended to impersonate the author,” she said. She was blushing. “Couldn’t it be a gift? It’s not rare for a sender to write his own name.”
In other words, this Yoshio Tanaka gave this book to grandmother.
I suddenly recalled the words my grandmother said when she was alive—that those who liked books would prefer like-minded people. Grandfather did not like reading, and it’s not a surprise that grandmother would get along with “like-minded” men.
I surfaced from deep thoughts. If this was true, then it did not make sense.
“But grandmother bought the collection at Biblia. She didn’t get it from Tanaka,” I said.
“That’s true. It’s likely that Mr. Tanaka only gave her this volume. Perhaps your grandmother came to buy the whole set of 34 volumes only after receiving Volume Eight: And Then, which carried the signature. Then she probably got rid of the duplicate copy. This book didn’t have a stamp, and there was no indication of a signature on the price card; with this logic, everything fits.”
“But why go to all the trouble?”
“So that Volume Eight wouldn’t be seen by your family… if it was hidden inside the full set, nobody would think it was a present. It would be too obvious if only one volume from Soseki’s Complete Collection were on the bookshelf. That’s why she bought the full set of 34 volumes from us… deliberately leaving the bookmark in Volume Eight, as ‘proof’ that she bought it at the Antiquarian Bookshop.”
“Then what about the signature?”
“The addition of Soseki’s was, I think, added as a failsafe. Rather than actually convince anyone it was authentic, she possibly wanted to make everyone think it was some useless doodle from the original owner.”
I thought back to I first saw the signature. I did suspect that it was fake, but even then I never thought of it as more than some doodle. Grandmother really fooled me.
“…Was there a need to go this far?” I murmured. What was it, the secret that my grandmother, who was never scared of anything, had to hide so thoroughly?
“Considering how things were in the past… I feel there is a reason,” she said cautiously.
I could guess at what that “reason” was. My great-grandparents were still in good health when my grandmother got married. It was a different time. Secret rendezvous with lovers, hidden from your parents, must have been more common than it was today. And in the end, she married my grandfather through an arranged marriage—something Yoshio Tanaka could do nothing about.
I recalled the words my grandmother said to me, in this very hospital. She suddenly brought up the subject of marriage after apologizing for hitting me in my childhood. Perhaps talking about And Then linked back to her own marriage? Then maybe there was another meaning in the words, “once I die, I’ll leave all my books to you two to handle as you please”. She probably felt it wouldn’t matter if we saw that signature.
Surely, in my grandmother’s mind, it linked back.
“But why put it on the bookshelf? She could have hidden them somewhere else.”
This was the only thing I could not understand. If she had concealed it deep in her drawer, for instance, there would be no need for such little tricks.
“Maybe she felt that it was safer to put it together with the other books instead of hiding it separately somewhere. Also…”
Shinokawa stroked the cover of Volume Eight: And Then, as if it were precious to her. For some reason, I recalled my grandmother’s hand, the one that struck me.
“…she wanted to put her most cherished book somewhere close at hand. Maybe it’s that sort of thing.”
Shinokawa was looking down her knees with a faraway look in her eyes. Come to think of it, as someone who loved books, she may have seen my grandmother as a kindred spirit. Just as I was about to ask about it, I suddenly realized there was actually something more important to discuss.
“…I don’t really know how much of what we’ve discussed so far is right,” she said suddenly, lifting her head. “It was something that happened a long time before we were born, and we can’t confirm it with your grandmother… we have only the things that can be learned from this book.”
The corners of her lips hinted at a smile, and I felt as if awoken from a dream. It was true that we did not know what was right and what was not, with grandmother dead.
Shinokawa looked down at her watch to check the time. Maybe she had some tests to run.
“What do you want to do with the whole collection? I’ll purchase it, if you ask…”
“No, I’d like to keep it. Thank you very much.”
I stood up. Even if it wasn’t so valuable, this collection was steeped in grandmother’s past. I wouldn’t so casually hand it over to someone else.
“But what you said was interesting. Very much so.”
I met Shinokawa’s eyes, with her just resting there on the bed. It would be too awkward to go back like this. While I was wondering how to say that I wanted to hear her finish explaining, she handed over the paper bag with Soseki’s Complete Collection inside.
As I took the bag, she said, “…Mr Goura Daisuke.”
Hearing my full name made me slightly uncomfortable.
“By chance, did your grandmother name you?”
“Eh? That’s right, but how did you know?”
Only my relatives knew about this, and it’s not like anybody else was going to ask.
After I answered, her expression became somber.
“…When did your grandmother get married?”
Now what’s going on? Haven’t we finished the story? Troubled, I searched through my memory. I wasn’t really clear on that, but I think someone mentioned it recently. I peered into the paper bag.
“Ah, that’s right. I heard that this book came out the year before her marriage.”
I opened the bag and pointed at Volume Eight: And Then at the top.
At that moment, her expression froze. Or perhaps it was my imagination.
“I’m really sorry I made you hear all these silly things.”
On the bed, she lowered her head, exuding honesty.
I returned home to report my findings, and my mother’s expression changed.
Of course, I didn’t mention anything about my grandmother’s past. I simply told her that the signature was forged, but she got angry about something else.
“When did I tell you to take it to the bookstore? And then you ran to the hospital to get it verified. Do you know how much trouble you’ve made?! You’re worse than a dine-and-dasher!”
She likened it to a dine-and-dash, as of course she would, for she was the daughter of a diner-running family. What was more, it worked on me, since I am the grandchild of a diner-running family. I decided to obey my mother’s instructions and bring a meal the next day. Such was the situation, and it was certainly true that I caused Shinokawa trouble, but it was also an excuse to see her again.
The next day was a weekday.
Like the day before, I woke up at noon. Mom had already gone out for work. I went downstairs to look at the mail, and found that the company that was hiring had sent a letter. I opened it to find my resume along with a cold rejection notice. Dejected, I sighed, dumped it into the trash bin, closed the blinds of the eatery, and went out.
As usual for the season, the weather was hot enough to sear the top of my head. The damp hot winds blew from the sea, mixing vaguely with the smell of ocean. This was the Kamakura summer I’ve known ever since childhood, the one I’ve always detested.
I filled my stomach at the McDonalds in front of the station, and then walked several rounds around the station building looking for a nice meal to bring. I had a tough time deciding. I didn’t know her favorites and I couldn’t focus on the shopping. I was still thinking about where our conversation ended before I left.
Did grandmother name me? When did she get married? Two questions that did not seem to be significant, but had shaken her when she heard my answer.
The previous day, I had asked my mother regarding my name, “Daisuke”.
“That woman forced this name onto you when you were born,” she said, and a tirade began. It seemed she was still angry over what happened 20 years ago, but it certainly was a little weird for her to call grandmother that woman so casually.
“She said she’d been keeping this name in mind a long while. I was vehemently against it … ‘Daisuke’ sounds like someone from the biker gangs.”
I wasn’t from a biker gang, so I wasn’t in a position to agree. How would I know what sort of names were common with them?
“Apparently, the name came from the book she loved the most. Different kanji, but same pronunciation. Heck if I remember what book it was.”
But I knew. When I reached home yesterday, I flipped open Volume Eight: And Then, and discovered that the male protagonist was called Daisuke. My name was definitely taken from here, and Shinokawa must have noticed it.
I did feel my body freeze up when I opened the book, and sweat rolled down profusely, but I managed to hang on and read a part of the prologue. What I read was introductory chit-chat with a dormitory student working part-time. In there I found that Daisuke was unemployed, and I suddenly had a sense of kinship with him. He was not an extremely motivated person and I wondered, what happened to this Daisuke in the end? Without this “condition” of mine, I could have read on until the end.
But I was puzzled as to why grandmother gave me this name. She couldn’t have possibly hoped that I become a person who didn’t do anything.
I went down the shopping street, and finally stopped at a Western-styled sweets shop. This shop’s specialty was the sandwich biscuits with raisins and butter cream. It might be good to bring these biscuits as a snack, and I would be struck with heatstroke if I were to continue on like this.
Just when I was about to step into the shop, I spotted a familiarly petite woman. Her skin was slightly tanned, and she was a little plump. She had large eyes and I thought of a little bear cub when I saw her face. She was older than my mother. Apparently, she had finished her pastry purchases, since there was a plastic bag in her hand, containing a pastry box.
“Oh my, isn’t this Daisuke? You’re here to buy sweets from this shop too?”
It was my aunt Maiko, who was staying at Fujisawa.
Aunt Maiko is the eldest daughter of the Goura family, and she could be said to be the most successful of my relatives.
Ever since she was young her grades were outstanding, and the moment she graduated from a certain Christian mission school in Yokohama, she married a man from an electric works company and gave birth to two girls without issues. They built a large house at Kugenuma in Fujisawa City, located near Ofuna, and the four of them lived comfortable lives. She was the sort who was passionate about taking care of people, but she became tense when she spoke.
She resembled neither grandmother nor my mother, but rather was a chip from my grandfather’s block.
“My Mina resigned from her job last year, spent some time travelling, going around shopping and touring around with friends. She just found another job a few days ago near the Kawasaki Center. Such a young girl working at Kawasaki; we kept telling her to resign, but she just wouldn’t listen.”
I was brought to a certain chain cafe in the station building, and I was the only male customer in a shop full of elderly women. It felt really weird.
“…Kawasaki doesn’t seem so dangerous.”
A year after my grandmother’s death, we were chatting about my cousin.
“But Kawasaki had always been a place for men to play around. There was a lot of overtime work, and I’m worried.”
She seemed to have concluded that Kawasaki was a street for merrymakers. That might have been true in the past, but now there are only ordinary shopping districts around the station. I was about to say this when my aunt changed the topic.
“Speaking of which, how’s Eri doing? Is she still busy with her work?”
Eri is my mom’s name. She had been working overtime often recently, which made her very busy.
“…More or less.”
“Then what about you? Have you found a job?”
“What kind of job do you want? Have you taken part in employment drives?”
Unconsciously, it had become a lecture to me. I started to understand vaguely once I grew into an adult. Whenever this aunt started talking about her family affairs, it would be a sign that she wanted to wring out who she was talking to. I stumbled as I answered, saying that I went to interview at several companies and that I was headed to the Hello Work Agency.
“With the current economic downtime, it’lll be hard for you to choose a job you’d really find suitable. You do have the advantage in muscle. How about you try out for the JSDF or the police?”
She was polite in her words, but her idea was otherwise like my mother’s. Without meaning to, I wondered whether it was because they were sisters that they thought so alike.
“My husband’s worried about you too. If you can’t get a job no matter what you do, come talk with us.”
I was a little touched. That uncle is the second son of the Kugenuma magnate family, and had vastly many connections in Fujisawa. He retired last year, but I heard he was chosen as a candidate for the City Council. Maybe he would recommend me a job.
“If you keep idling around like this, your grandma will worry about you on the other side. To her, you were like the apple of her eye.”
I nearly spat out the iced coffee I was drinking.
“No. That can’t possibly be true.”
Those narrow eyes had been too thin to allow anything in. She was not someone who could easily forgive and love a kid after he made a mistake.
“You’re just like Eri here, huh? Both of you certainly never realized it.”
Aunt sighed worriedly.
“I’ve observed her longer than anyone else, so I understand this. Your grandma loves you and Eri most…whenever she made the occasional trip to our house, she always kept talking about you two. Her last outing was with you two, wasn’t it? My husband and I were the ones who offered to go with her first, but she refused.”
This was the first time I heard this. It was true that my retired uncle and housewife aunt Maiko had much more free time as compared to my mom who had been busy with work, and me, who had been busy looking for a job.
Now that she said it, I don’t remember ever seeing my grandmother quarrel with aunt Maiko. I thought that they were able to get along, unlike my mom, but maybe their relationship just wasn’t as close.
“Then, why are we…”
There was no way my mother and I were pleasing to the eye, as far as appearance goes. I couldn’t think of anything that made her particularly happy.
“…Is it because you’re tall?”
I couldn’t help being surprised, but my aunt’s expression was serious.
“I’m not joking here. Your grandfather was the same as the rest of us; our family members’ builds are all short except for you and Eri. I feel she prefers taller people…I mean, your grandmother’s room had something like this, right?”
My aunt drew a rectangle with her finger, and after thinking about it for a while, I understood what she was referring to. It was the rubber board on the door frame.
“That was nailed on when we were young. No one in our household grew that tall, and yet she said something like, ‘it’ll be bad if the next child grows up and ends up hitting into it’…that’s what she said, back before Eri was born. That was 45, 46 years ago.”
I was momentarily stunned. All sorts of numbers in my mind, and I inadvertently recalled what my grandmother said— If you make this mistake again, you won’t be a child of our house any longer.
Is that so? I thought, from a place deep in my heart, and gulped down my iced coffee to hide my anxiousness. My mouth felt dry inside, but my hands were soaked.
“…You hit into it, Daisuke? That thing?”
I nodded silently.
“So it does have its purpose after all. Your grandmother must have been really happy.”
My aunt’s voice felt distant, and I finally understood why Shinokawa was so shocked—no, I still had not confirmed its truth yet. I lifted my head.
“Speaking of which, about what I heard earlier.”
I tried my best to remain calm. This was a spur of the moment question, not something that had been stewing awhile.
“What kind of person was grandfather?”
The hand reaching for the glass mug paused, and my aunt went silent. I could suddenly hear the voices of the surrounding customers very clearly. There were two women of a similar age as my aunt seated at the table next to us, chatting away loudly. They seemed to be discussing whether black vinegar was the most effective health food.
“Did your grandmother ever mention your grandfather?”
Now that she asked, I realized I never heard her do so.
“Then you never heard how he died.”
“I did hear my mom mention it a little… she said that he died in a car accident while coming back from the Kawasaki Daishi in midsummer.”
Suddenly, aunt Maiko snorted and gave a bitter smile. This coldness on her face truly shocked me; it wasn’t an expression she would usually make.
“Eri was really young back then, and she really believed that,” she murmured to herself.
“Why, with so many temples in Kamakura, did he choose to go pray at Kawasaki?” said aunt Maiko. “And in the middle of summer, too…? The Kawasaki Daishi was just an excuse your grandfather invented.”
“Horse racing and car racing. Aren’t these the things that come to mind when we talk about Kawasaki? Your grandfather was an alcoholic too, and he was dead drunk on the day he got into that accident.”
I was shocked speechless. I never imagined my grandfather was that kind of person.
“Your grandfather married into the family, and I heard that he worked really hard when the marriage started. But after I was born, once your great grandparents died, he started acting strange. He would go to the ‘Kawasaki Daishi’ for several days and never come back.”
I finally understood why aunt hated Kawasaki. There was no way she could feel okay about the place her father gambled all the time. She probably didn’t even want to approach the place.
“It was amazing your grandmother never asked for a divorce… she kept enduring no matter what happened. Of course, it was a different case when he touched the bookshelf, she was really scary that time.”
I held back the words I wanted to say. I still could not remain calm.
“Daisuke, you mustn’t be like your grandfather. You have to work hard.”
She reverted back to her lecturing tone. Probably she’d mentioned all this, things that even my mother didn’t know, as a cautionary tale. Those words signaled the conversation was over. She pushed her chair aside and moved to stand; it seemed she was about to head home.
“…Aunty, have you read Soseki’s And Then?”
Aunt looked at me with surprise as she carried the plastic bag emblazoned with the logo of the Western sweets shop. She blinked quite rapidly.
“Why ask this out of a sudden?”
“Apparently, it was a book grandmother really treasured. I started reading it recently,” I said, privately gauging grandmother’s response. She looked doubtful; it looked like she was clueless about any secrets hidden in that book. If the eldest daughter Maiko did not know, it seemed that I was the only one in the family who did.
“I never read the book, but I saw the movie, the one with Yūsaku Matsuda cast as the lead.”
This was the first time I heard it was made into a movie.
“What was the end? I only know that the male lead doesn’t have a job.”
Aunt lowered her head to recall. It seemed like she didn’t remember too well.
“I think the male lead got another man’s wife.”
The sun was setting by the time I reached the hospital.
Like the previous day, Shinokawa was reading on the bed. She seemed to be trying to whistle, her lips protruding slightly. The moment she saw me, however, she nodded with her face bright red.
She greeted me softly, and her attitude was completely different from when she was explaining about Soseki’s Complete Collection yesterday. It seemed that she would revert back to her introverted nature if she was not talking about books.
“Hello. Do you have time right now?”
“Ah, yes…please come in…”
She fidgeted and let me sit down. When I went into the room, I found a book lying on her knees. She was reading a novel, and when I wondered what book it was, she shyly showed me the cover. It was Julia and the Bazooka by Anna Kavan. It is really a strange name; I could not imagine what it was about.
I again apologized for what happened the previous day, and handed her the sandwich biscuits. She shook her head hurriedly.
“No…you don’t have to worry…I’m the one at fault for saying so much useless stuff…”
The word “useless” had an unusual emphasis. She refused to accept it, and I brought the box to Shinokawa’s hands in a half-forceful manner. She then lowered her head awkwardly.
While I was wondering if I was being a little too forceful, she spoke.
“I was just thinking of having a snack, you see,” she said with a soft voice. “If—if possible…can we eat it together?”
Of course, I did not refuse. She opened the box and handed me a biscuit in its own wrapping. We opened our bags at the same time.
It was nicer than I thought. The fragrance of butter and the tartness of raisins were a perfect match, and the biscuit’s crispness was a nice feeling on the teeth.
“I do occasionally buy this kind …but all the flavor goes if I eat it the day after,” Shinokawa said, smiling. I’m not too sure, but it seems like I made the right choice.
I finished the biscuit in two mouthfuls, and she kept on nibbling. She invited me to eat but didn’t say anything else. Of course, we never talked about Soseki’s Complete Collection.
She knew the secret my grandmother kept for decades from what I said and from the clues on the book. She also tried her best to keep me from discovering this secret, and that was why she called it “useless stuff”.
Of course, it was already too late.
The previously mentioned Volume Eight: And Then was published on July 27 in the 31st year of the Showa Era. That would be 1956—54 years ago. My grandmother was married the following year, and I thought that Yoshio Tanaka was the one who gave her the book.
Thinking about it now, it didn’t necessarily have to be that Yoshio Tanaka sent her the book immediately after it was published. He could plausibly have given his most treasured book to my grandmother later.
My grandmother bought the rest of the series 45 or 46 years ago…about ten years after she got married. If Toshio Tanaka gave her this book during that time period, then it would have been while she was still married to my grandfather. Soseki’s And Then was a story about how Daisuke stole another man’s wife. My grandparents’ marriage hadn’t been at all happy.
My grandmother gave me the name “Daisuke” based on the male protagonist, and it was something she thought of a long time ago—in other words, she did not name this simply because of me, but because my mother could possibly have been a boy, before she was born. Grandmother bought Soseki’s Complete Collection around the time my mom was born.
Aunt Maiko said that grandmother liked tall people, which was why she preferred mom and me. But this was probably half the truth. We were the only tall ones in the family, and the rest were short. I didn’t look like my grandfather at all.
Did grandmother see the face of her secret lover through mom and me?
She nailed a rubber board in the Japanese-styled room on the second floor. This was something short people would not think about—that someone would knock their head into it.
Perhaps she had more reasons to nail it on than just her children after they’d grown up. If she hadn’t wanted someone to hurt their head, it could also be a certain someone my family did not know of, someone as tall as me.
My real grandfather was the man called Yoshio Tanaka—perhaps this was the secret my grandmother hid at all costs. You won’t be a child of our house any longer, had she meant that statement literally?
But these were only guesses. Since grandmother died, I could not confirm them, but they were possible.
“…Is Yoshio Tanaka still alive?”
Upon hearing my question, Shinokawa, who was about to take her last bite, stopped.
“Maybe he’s still alive…and maybe…”
She lowered her head. I knew what she was saying. Yoshio Tanaka could meet my grandmother when she was busy with the eatery; that meant that he could be staying nearby.
The patient room was in silence under the sunset. This unspeakable truth was something only the two of us knew in full. We did not know anything about each other, but for some reason, we were related by this common secret.
Shinokawa’s voice rang clear in my ears.
“What kind of job are you working now?”
I was pulled back into reality. She was so direct, I had to answer honestly.
“…I haven’t found one.”
“…I’m not doing any at the moment.”
I didn’t know when I would be called in for interviews, so it was hard for me to do part-time work for long hours. I felt more awkward when I said this—but for some reason, her face lit up in delight. What was going on? Was she happy that I didn’t have work?
“I…got a fracture, and there’s still some time before I get discharged…the shop’s already lacking in staff, and so things all ended up like this.”
She was talking somewhat vaguely, and I really didn’t know where she was going with this.
“Then, if you don’t mind, maybe you’ll please work in my shop?”
I widened my eyes at her, and she lowered her head deeply.
“Please. My little sister will help, though she’s not too reliable.”
“Wha… wait a second. I don’t understand books at all.”
And I should have mentioned about my “condition”. It was unheard of for someone bad at reading books to work at a bookstore.
“…Do you have a driver’s license?”
“Great. There are no problems then.”
She nodded her head vigorously.
“…Is it more important to have someone who knows how to drive instead of being able to read?”
“Working at an old bookstore, what you need to know isn’t what’s in the books, but rather their market prices. Of course it’s helpful to have read lots of books, but you can pick stuff up even if you haven’t read any. In fact, many people working at bookstores don’t read outside of work. Maybe someone like me who reads everything is weird…”
My jaw dropped. My impression of an old book store had completely collapsed, and I was feeling that I heard something I shouldn’t have.
“Anyway, we need to move large numbers of books, so you need a driver’s license. I’ve been doing the acquisition and valuations of the books, so if you can follow my instructions, Mr. Goura…”
Somehow things ended up like this. I managed to recover.
“B-but…isn’t there anyone more suitable?”
“Didn’t you yourself talk about being happy to hear anything regarding books?”
“Eh? Ah, yes.”
“I do become very talkative when I get on the topic… the children who worked part-time for me before this all resigned, because they couldn’t stand me. I really couldn’t find anyone who could work with me.”
So she wanted to hire me so I could listen to her talk? At my stupefied expression, she lifted her eyes, evidently pleading for assistance. My head felt hot to see her teary eyes. That look on her face was a crime.
“Anyway, our family bookstore requires lots of physical labor, and there are a lot of things to memorize. Our little shop also pays pretty well, too…”
I involuntarily felt that I couldn’t just leave her alone like this, but I still did not answer. She leaned over, surrounded by a hill of books, and nearly fell off the bed.
“…You don’t want to do it?”
I suddenly recalled the words my grandmother said to me in this hospital.
if you could read, your life would be so different.
The person before me was a bookworm who had always been reading. I was not altogether unsatisfied with myself at that moment, but deep within my heart I knew I wanted to live in this pile of books.
And also—I was thinking about Yoshio Tanaka. Most likely, he was a bookworm like my grandmother and Shinokawa. If he stayed nearby, perhaps he might appear at the Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia.
Mentally prepared, I stood up and nodded.
“But I have a condition.”
She tensed up.
“…What is it?”
“Can you tell me about the story of Natsume Soseki’s And Then? What kind of story is it? I want to know as much as I can.”
These books, handed down as they were, not only had the stories on the page, but also the stories worn into their substance.
I learned the story of how my grandmother cherished this Volume Eight: And Then. I was very interested in the story on its pages, too—however, I was unable to read it to the end.
“Of course,” she said, nodding firmly with a smile. Her beaming face kept me from looking away. She seemed to be lost in reminiscence as she looked up into the sky. After a while, her delicate lips spoke with a gentle voice.
“And Then was serially published in the Asahi Shinbun in the year Meiji 42. It was part of a trilogy that also includes Sanshiro and The Gate…”
Is she going to start from the background? It seemed we were in for a long conversation. I listened to each word silently as I gently pulled the round chair towards the bed.