Chapter 2: A Children’s Book with a Tanuki, a Crocodile, and a Dog?
It was the fourth of January, and the novel feeling that accompanied the start of a new year was beginning to fade.
The people I now saw waiting at Kamakura station weren’t travelers returning from the first shrine visit of the year, but locals going out to shop. Nursing a hangover from last night, I also waited for the next train to arrive.
I had met up with some of my high school classmates for the first time in a while yesterday afternoon. Lots of came back home for the new year, so these meetups ended up being something between a New Year’s party and a class reunion. Sawamoto, who currently lived in Koshigoe, was there, but my ex-girlfriend Kousaka Akiho was not.
It was with a strange feeling of both relief and worry that I went to visit the Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shrine with everyone after hearing from Sawamoto that Akiho was apparently hard back at work since yesterday.
I stood for a while near the shrine entrance in front of the stump where the large ginkgo tree used to stand. I had known that the huge, several hundred year old tree fell in a typhoon last spring, but it was my first time seeing it in person. I didn’t have any particular feelings about the tree, but its abrupt disappearance was still an unexpected shock.
Oh well. It’s not like there was some moral lesson to be learned here.
The entire group was invited to stay over at a house in Zaimokuza after a long night of drinking at the bar. My memory started getting hazy at around midnight, but I did remember everyone getting all excited talking about Biblia.
They were saying stuff about how the stupid Goura was currently getting along with the beautiful bookshop owner and jokes that I should hurry up and get rejected if there wasn’t going to be any progress so they could laugh at me. I somehow managed to avoid talking about it for the most part and left the house after a late breakfast banquet, which was just a short time ago.
A blue train with cream colored lines pulled into the station. I waited for the previous passengers to disembark before boarding myself.
While there were some free seats, Ofuna was only two stops away so there really wasn’t much point in sitting down. I held on to the strap and aimlessly stared out of the window.
“Oh my, hey—hey! Goura!” A familiar high pitched voice rang out just as the train began to move.
I looked around, wondering who called my name.
“Where are you looking? I’m right here! Over here!”
My eyes turned to a small lady sitting in the seat in front of me. She wore a down jacket and had a fur scarf wrapped around her neck.
“Happy New Year…Shinobu.” I let go of the strap and bowed my head.
This was Sakaguchi Shinobu. She lived with her older husband in Zushi.
Almost half a year ago she came to the store to take back the copy of Introduction to Logic that her husband was trying to sell. She continued to stop by the shop from time to time even after the incident had been resolved,. It wasn’t, of course, because Shinobu wanted to buy or sell books; she just dropped in to chat. The last time she came in, she brought us assorted dried fruits as a souvenier from Taiwan.
“Happy New Year to you too! Let’s get along this year too! Let’s get along!” She said as she grabbed my hand and violently shook it up and down.
“What a coincidence seeing you here! I was just about to go to Kita-Kamakura to visit the shop. Are you working today?”
“Unfortunately not. I’m off.”
I had worked up until the last day of the year, and got the first four days of January off. There weren’t many stores that were closed on the first and last days of the year, but Biblia’s schedule had always been this way.
“Ehh! Really?” She raised her voice. Shouldn’t she have expected this, considering one of the only two shop employees there was wandering around like this?
“Is the shop owner there?”
Raising my head, I thought back. I hadn’t talked to Shioriko about anything but work lately.
“Hmm…let’s see… Oh, I don’t think she’s there right now. I believe she had an arrangement with someone today.”
I happened to see her mark her January calendar with “Ryuu – 12pm” while talking on the phone on New Year’s Eve. Shioriko probably had plans to meet with Takino Renjou’s younger sister, who she‘d gotten along with since her school days. She did say something about the two of them having a New Year’s party.
“Did something happen?”
If Shinobu was trying to visit even though the shop was closed, it had to be something serious. Maybe it was something related to her husband, Sakaguchi Masashi. Their relationship was almost sickeningly sweet, but Sakaguchi had a past he didn’t like to talk about and also suffered from a severe eye disease.
“Yeah…kind of.” Shinobu put her hand on her cheek in thought. “There’s something that’s been really bothering me, and I wanted to ask the shop owner for advice. But if she’s not there, I’ll just have to go another day.”
The train decelerated as it pulled into Kita-Kamakura station, but Shinobu showed no sign of getting up. It didn’t look like she wanted to switch trains here.
“Do you have work after this?” I asked.
I remembered that she worked at her friend’s snack bar. It was possible that her job was in Fujisawa, but it still seemed too early for her to be going to work.
“No, I’m off today but…” Shinobu stopped talking and looked up at me. The train had stopped at Kita-Kamakura station. The train doors opened and then closed again, but she did her eyes off my face.
“What is it?”
“Goura, do you have some time today?”
“Eh? Yeah, I’m free.”
“In that case, would it be alright if I discussed it with you first? I wanted to talk about a book.”
“A book…is it Introduction to Logic?”
“No, not that.” She shook her head.
“This time it’s about a book that I used to own a long time ago.”
Continuing the conversation on the train wouldn’t work, so we got off at the next stop, Ofuna station. It felt kind of strange walking around with a regular customer away from the store.
“I have no problem listening, but I don’t know how helpful my advice will be. My book knowledge isn’t exactly great…” I turned and talked to Shinobu as we went up the escalator.
She leaned on the escalator handrail as we went up. “But you know more than me right? I want to talk to anyone who could have a clue. There aren’t any other people I can ask for help with this.”
Shinobu narrowed her eyes, and her thick mascara made a distinctive line with her eyelids. I supposed I could at least listen to what she had to say and pass it on to Shioriko tomorrow.
I noticed another of our regulars after we got off the escalator and passed through the ticket gate. A girl wearing a long, hooded coat, with a sharp expression on her face, was leaning against a pillar. She stared wearily at the station building entrance with her hands in her pockets. It looked like she was waiting for someone.
I called her name, and Kosuga Nao turned my way, eyes wide.
“Goura, why are you…oh right, you live in Ofuna…Happy New Year.” She lowered her head slightly, adding the New Year’s greeting at the end as if she just remembered.
“Happy New Year,” I responded to her greeting. Shinobu, who was next to me, looked at Nao with interest.
“This girl is also one of the shop’s regulars.”
There was an incident with her involving a Kotama Kiyoshi book in the past, but Nao still often stopped by the shop since then. She got along well with the homeless book hunter, Shida.
“Ah, is that so? Nice to meet you! My name’s Sakaguchi Shinobu. Sakaguchi is spelled with the characters for slope and mouth. My first name is spelled the same way it sounds. I also cause a lot of trouble for this shop. I hope we get along!” Shinobu enthusiastically held her hand out for a handshake.
Perhaps taken aback by her high energy, Nao hesitantly took her hand after a moment.
“I hope so too. I’m Kosuga Nao.”
“Are you waiting for someone?” I asked.
“Yeah…well actually, she’s already here, but she said she wanted to go to the restroom…”
“Yoo—sorry for taking so long! The wait for the toilet was so long back there at Lumine… Oh, it’s Goura. Why’re you here?”
A familiar voice suddenly cut into our conversation, and a girl wearing a red duffel coat with her hair tied into a ponytail approached us. This was Shioriko’s younger sister, Shinokawa Ayaka.
“I just happened to pass by…were the two of you meeting up?”
“Yep.” Ayaka nodded as if it were only natural.
I on the other hand was surprised at the unexpected combination. I knew that they went to the same school and had been talking a lot lately, but I didn’t think they were so close that they would hang out on their off days.
I turned to Sakaguchi Shinobu. Since she was a regular customer, it would probably be a good idea to introduce her to Ayaka.
“This person is…” Just when I started, the two of them suddenly ran up to each other and vigorously shook both hands.
“Ayaka! Hello! Please take care of me this year too!”
“Shinobu! It’s been so long! Take care of me as well! How have you been?”
Their greetings were loud enough to attract the attention of the people around us. I was taken aback.
“You two know each other?”
“Shinobu stopped by once when you and the shop owner were away from the shop…”
“…and we exchanged contact info and went out for tea.” Shinobu took over Ayaka’s explanation.
I didn’t know about any of this, but it was clear that they already has a good relationship.
“Shinobu, did you get shorter?”
“Nope! I haven’t been wearing boots or high heels these days. I got these shoes instead! They’re really easy to walk in!”
Shinobu lifted the hem of her dress and showed off her plain colored sneakers. Ayaka’s eyes glittered with excitement.
“Wow, they’re the same as mine!”
Ayaka lifted her leg to show off her own shoes. The design really was the same.
“Look at that! They match!
“Yeah, they really do! Woah!”
Kosuga and I watched from a distance as they passionately discussed how nice their shoes were. To be honest, it was hard to deal with this high level of excitement.
Well still, this is pretty incredible.
Whether it was with Kosuga Nao or Sakaguchi Shinobu, Shinokawa Ayaka’s people skills were uncommonly good if she could get along with people so well after such a short amount of time. She was the complete opposite of Shioriko. It was almost like Ayaka had taken off with all of her sister’s communication skills.
Kosuga Nao’s lips were pressed together. She seemed impatient.
“So where are you going?” I asked.
“We’re going to see a movie.”
“Yep, yep. Nao said she wanted me to watch this cartoon and let me borrow a DVD. The series has a new movie out now, and she said she wanted to see it no matter what…”
“Stop saying so much, you idiot!” Nao interrupted Ayaka in a fluster and purposefully cleared her throat.
“Anyway, we need to go. There’s not much time left.”
Nao took a passcase from her pocket and tapped the automatic ticket gate sensors with it before passing into the station. Movies that aired at the beginning and end of the year were usually aimed at kids.
“She has a cute passcase, doesn’t she?” Shinobu whispered to me in a low voice.
I noticed it too. Nao’s passcase had a brown monkey-like character with large ears drawn on it. I didn’t know its name, but I’d seen it around a lot lately. Some people had pretty unexpected tastes.
“…Goura.” Ayaka made no move to follow Kosuga. Her expression was now suddenly serious.
“Did something happen recently? Have you not been feeling well or something?”
“Shioriko has been worried about you lately, Goura. Since you haven’t been as enthusiastic these days…she’s worried that something happened, you know.”
There was nothing wrong with my health of course, but what I heard from Inoue at Hitori Books at the end of the year had left a lasting impact on me.
I didn’t completely believe that Shioriko had been in contact with her mother this whole time, but there was no doubt that someone was giving Shinokawa Chieko information about me. It was a bad feeling, like someone was spying on me. There was no point in thinking about who I should have, and shouldn’t have trusted now.
I hadn’t though Shioriko would notice though. I did get an email from her in January, but the contents were the usual formal New Year’s salutations. I also sent her a similar letter in return, but thinking about it now, that was probably a bit unnatural.
“I’m doing just fine…”
“I see…Well, I guess it’s alright then.” It seemed that was all she’d wanted to ask.
“If that’s all it is, then Shioriko should feel better. Anyway, see ya! You too Shinobu!”
Ayaka broke into a small run and waved as she passed through the ticket gate.
Shinobu and I went into a tea shop on the second floor of a pachinko parlor. More than half the tables were filled, so we chose a seat in the non-smoking section near the wall.
“This is the non-smoking section. Is that alright with you?”
“I quit smoking… They say it’s better that way.” Shinobu replied as she took off her coat.
Come to think of it, I heard about a steep increase in cigarette prices in the news a few months ago. Apparently that was enough to get many people to quit smoking.
We ordered drinks for ourselves, but neither of us continued the conversation. The tea shop was a lot quieter than I thought it would be, perhaps because of the many elderly sitting alone.
“How are things going with the shop owner?”
“Goura, you like her, don’t you?” Shinobu said softly.
I couldn’t hide it now that she had asked me so bluntly. I also felt comfortable talking to an older acquaintance who knew both Shioriko and me.
“Yeah…I don’t know what she thinks about me though.”
“That girl gives off a difficult to approach feeling—like she’s not willing to open up her heart. She’s kind of like my Masa in that way…although I guess it’s rude to compare her to an old man like that.”
“Not at all…”
Masa was her nickname for her husband, Sakaguchi Masashi. He and Shioriko certainly did have common traits, though their ages and gender were completely different.
“People like that tend to focus at the those they’re interested in and, unexpectedly, are able to understand a lot. That makes it quite hard to hide things from them…”
She was talking to herself, but I thought she might be referring to the conversation I had with Ayaka. It was her sort of roundabout way of telling me to just be honest if there was something on my mind.
There was no use mulling over it. If I was making absolutely no progress thinking about what Inoue from Hitori Bookstore had told me, then there was no choice but to ask Shioriko herself about it.
The conversation lulled for a moment as the drinks we ordered arrived at the table. I got coffee and Shinobu got hot milk.
“How is Masashi doing?”
“He’s doing great now, wonderful.” Shinobu grinned.
“Masashi’s eyes aren’t getting any better, but other than that, he’s as healthy as can be. He’s training now so that he’ll be alright even as his eyesight gets worse. He’s working so hard to take care of his daily needs, I think that serious part of him is wonderful…”
Shinobu had a faraway look in her eyes as she held her teacup. I hadn’t expected her to start gushing about her husband all of a sudden.
“Right, so about the book from before…”
“Eh? Ah, of course.”
I had a little trouble keeping up with her sudden change of topic. Thinking back, that was what we came here to talk about today.
“There was this really interesting book I used to read a lot back when I was in elementary school. I didn’t like reading at all back then, and don’t really remember what the story was about anymore. All I know is that it was really good. It’s been on my mind so much these days that it’s driving me crazy. Have you ever felt like that?”
“Yeah, sometimes.” I nodded.
It wasn’t books, but there were times when I felt an intense longing for things that I enjoyed as a child.
“I want to find that book again no matter what, and that’s why I want to ask you and the shop owner for help. Of course, I’ll pay if you find it.”
“You won’t need to do that.”
This was just a request for us to find a book, not an unusual task for an antiquarian bookshop. I didn’t know if we would have it in stock, but we should at least be able to find a shop that did sell it.
“So what’s the title of this book?”
“That’s the problem…I can’t remember it.” Shinobu replied with a troubled expression.
“The title had katakana in it….but I’ve always been bad with foreign names. I’m no good with English either.”
“Do you at least know the author’s name?”
“Well, it was a foreigner. They had long name, I think.”
“I’m guessing you don’t know the publisher either.”
Shinobu nodded. I took a sip of coffee as I gathered my thoughts. I didn’t have anything to work with right now.
“…It’s impossible, isn’t it?”
It was impossible for me, at any rate. I still wanted help, of course, but even Shioriko would have a hard time with this little information.
“You said you read it in elementary school…was it a children’s book?”
“I think so, yes. There were lots of illustrations, but there were lots of chapters too. And there wasn’t just hiragana, there was kanji with furigana too.
“What kind of story was it?”
“Let’s see…I believe it was kind of a picture book with a tanuki, dog, and a crocodile. I don’t know when it was written, but I think it took place somewhere in the West….”
Shinobu stopped talking. It seemed even her memories of what the story was about were vague.
“Can you remember anything else?”
“There was a dog!” Sakaguchi Shinobu suddenly exclaimed. I was pretty sure she just told me that.
“It was a really sad story…the dog’s owner loved him when he was born, but as soon as he became bigger, he was thrown out and replaced with another puppy. Isn’t it horrible?”
It certainly was cruel. It was a pretty harsh story for a book made for children.
“…And then he became friends with a lonely lion.”
“That’s quite a difference in size.”
“Right, right. The lion was also worried about his size at first, but he eventually got over it and they became friends. Isn’t it great how they both got along despite being so different?”
I related this to the Sakaguchi couple. There was a difference in age, and their pasts were completely different.
“So were the dog and lion the main characters?”
“No, the protagonist was a tanuki.”
“A tanuki? In a foreign story?”
This was the first time I’d heard of a tanuki appearing in a children’s story from another country.
Shinobu didn’t seem completely confident either; she tilted her head in doubt.
“It might not have been called a tanuki exactly, but I remember what it looked like! Give me just a second.”
She took out a small notebook from her handbag and began to scribble on it with a ballpoint pen. Shinobu was more skilled than I expected. She held out a drawing of an animal with short arms and legs. It had two round ears above it’s pitch black body and a long puffy tail. Only the area around its eyes wa white—
“That’s a tanuki isn’t it?”
“I know right, it really is! This tanuki met several characters, like the abandoned dog, and the lonely lion.”
“Did it do anything with them?”
Shinobu squeezed her eyes tightly shut and pressed her finger to her head as if she was trying to draw out a memory.
“The tanuki was I think…trying to build a house.”
“You mean like a dog house?”
“Mm—I think it was bigger than that. It was kind of like a house where lonely children could gather…they carried in lots of bricks on a large truck and everyone put their effort together to build it.”
“So a bunch of characters appeared.”
“Yep, yep yep. There was also a boy who was no good at studying and was trying to make friends. He was looking for someone with worse grades than him, but couldn’t find anyone.”
“That’s a pretty amazing…so humans also appeared in the story?”
“Of course they did. Not just people though. There was also a crocodile, and a giraffe…all the animals were living together happily. I think there was also something about a zoo in the story…”
It was interesting, but I didn’t really understand what kind of world it was. It kind of felt like a Disney cartoon.
“That’s all I can remember though. I don’t know at all how the story ended.”
The reason her memory was so fragmented was probably because she read the parts she liked over and over again. That was how children tended to read books.
I took the picture of the main character that she drew and put it in my pocket. I wasn’t sure how useful this would be as a clue, but if I showed it to someone who was more knowledgeable about books then maybe—
“Ah.” A thought flashed into my mind. I had forgotten something obvious.
“What is it? Do you know what book it was?” Sakaguchi Shinobu’s eyes were sparkling.
“It’s not that…you had this book at your house, right? Was it something your parents bought for you?”
Shinobu’s expression stiffened a little.
“Yeah, that’s right…my mom bought it for me at the neighborhood bookstore but…”
“In that case, what about asking her?” I replied. It would be perfectly normal for Shinobu’s mother to remember a book that her mother used to read so eagerly.
“It might even still be at that house.”
“Yes…well, that might be true but…” Shinobu’s voice suddenly became small. “I don’t really…want to talk to my parents.”
Crap. I had completely forgotten that she had a bad relationship with her parents. That was why she’d moved away from home the moment she graduated from high school.
I lowered my head, but she grinned and waved away my apology.
“It’s fine, it’s fine. Because you’re right. I was planning to go back home to ask them anyway…ah, of course!” Shinobu suddenly clapped her hands, and the sound rang out in the shop. I had a bad feeling about why.
“What’s the matter?”
“Can you and the shop owner come with me? To my hometown!”
“Huh!?” I couldn’t stop myself from exclaiming.
“…And that’s where things are now.”
It was a quiet morning at Biblia and I had just finished giving Shioriko a detailed account of what happened yesterday and was waiting for her reply.
She had her head tilted to the side earlier, but hadn’t moved it in a while, almost as if her neck was stuck in that position. She didn’t seem to have noticed the long, black strands of hair covering the lenses of her glasses
“Do you know what book she could be talking about?”
There was no response. Shioriko was still thinking hard. After some tens of seconds, she took a long, deep breath like a diver surfacing from the water.
“I’m sorry…it’s a bit difficult.” Her regretful voice sounded thin.
I didn’t think she had anything to apologize for though. In fact, I would have been shocked if she managed to figure it out given the few clues we had to work with.
“But I do feel like I’ve heard this story before.”
“Yes, but…it’s a little strange. I rarely ever forget the titles and authors of the books I’ve read.”
“But isn’t it normal? Not remembering every book you read as a kid, that is.”
“Oh, is that so?” was her puzzled reply.
Evidently common sense did not apply to Shioriko when it came to books.
“Were you able to think of anything?”
“It’s nothing substantive, but if Shinobu’s story is accurate, then we can at least narrow the scope a little.”
“What do you mean?”
“First, this book was sold new at bookstores in the latter half of 1970.” Shioriko lifted her index finger.
“It’s reasonable to assume that if Shinobu read the book in elementary school, it would have been written and published before then.”
“And the second point,” Shioriko raised a second finger.
“The story was most likely written in the 20th century, and was set in a European or American city during that time period.”
“How do you know that?”
Shinobu said that she didn’t know when it was written, and she didn’t say anything at all about when and where the story was set.
“There was a scene where they carry a large amount of bricks in a truck, correct? Trucks were first invented in the late 19th century, but weren’t in widespread use until the early 20th century. The fact that there was also a zoo in the story means that there’s a high chance it was set in a city.”
I nodded; that made sense. However, the range from early 1900s to 1970 was still far from specific. We had only narrowed our scope a little.
“What I don’t understand is how the protagonist could be a tanuki.” Shioriko put her fingers down.
“Tanuki have appeared in stories in Japan since long ago, but since they live principally in East Asia, they aren’t well known in the West. Perhaps it was a different animal…”
“But the picture she drew looks like a tanuki, doesn’t it?”
I looked down at the piece of paper set on the countertop. It was the drawing of the protagonist that Shinobu gave me yesterday.
“It really does…”
The two of us fell silent for a while. There were too few clues, and it felt like there wasn’t much else we could work with.
“Do you want to go to Shinobu’s home?”
Shinobu said something about how having people knowledgeable about books come with her would be more convenient, but she probably just didn’t want to go back home by herself.
“I do.” Shioriko replied immediately. “I also want to know what book this is.”
I felt the same way. The idea of someone going back home with some bookstore employees in tow felt odd though.
“By the way, has she talked to her husband about this book?”
“Shinobu didn’t say anything about what her husband thought, so I was a little curious…”
That was true, come to think of it. Masashi was the type of person who’d insist on going to Shinobu’s hometown with her even if it meant going together with us. Maybe there were circumstances that were stopping him this time. Shinobu said her parents were strict, so I didn’t know if they would approve of the fact that she married an older man.
“But there isn’t any reason to hide it either. What if Masashi also didn’t know which book it was, and she didn’t feel the need to bring it up in our conversation?”
Shinobu herself told me that she couldn’t hide anything from her husband.
Shioriko smiled and nodded in agreement.
“I see…maybe I’m overthinking this. Anyway, let’s get back to work; quite a few online orders came in yesterday…”
I called to stop her before she went back behind the wall of books. There was one more thing that I needed to talk about.
“The truth is, I went to Hitori Bookstore before.”
I told her everything I knew—from the Christmas card that the shop owner, Inoue, received from Shinokawa Chieko to the suspicions that Inoue had shared with me.
Shioriko listened to my story silently with her expression almost completely still. I apologized at the end for keeping it a secret for so long, but she angrily looked away from me.
“I have most certainly not been in contact with my mother, and I haven’t told anyone about you either. There is no meaning in pretending otherwise. You should have told me about this sooner.”
“I see…I’m sorry.”
“I’ve been worried about you since the beginning of the year.” Shioriko was still turned away.
“I was worried that something was wrong…do you remember when we went drinking? It was the day before we got The Dandelion Girl back.”
“Eh? Yeah, I remember.” I answered her question, confused. What was she bringing that up for now? Shioriko’s cheeks were slightly red for some reason.
“I had fun that day…and drank more than I usually do, so I can’t really remember everything I said. I was thinking that by some chance, I ended up doing something strange…”
“Strange how?” I blurted out without thinking.
I really didn’t understand what she meant, but her face became even redder.
“I mean, um…like if I couldn’t stop laughing…or if I hummed to myself…or dozed off….”
Her voice gradually became softer and softer. As brilliant as she was, she got the wrong impressions at the strangest times. It was hard to hold my laughter in.
“Nothing like that happened.”
“Really? You’re not just hiding it?” She glanced at me from the corner of her eye to see my expression. Honestly speaking, what I said wasn’t completely true, but it hadn’t been a bad way to drink. Rather, it was the complete opposite.
Having said that, a strange sense of courage welled up inside me.
“What about going drinking some other day? If you’re alright with it of course.”
“I’ll think about it.”
Just as I was feeling relieved that I hadn’t been outright rejected, I noticed that Shioriko’s expression had become dark.
“If what Inoue said is true, it would mean that there’s someone out there passing on information to my mother…”
If Shioriko wasn’t in contact with her mother, then it had to be someone else keeping in touch with her. Someone around us was secretly collecting information about us and passing it on to Shinokawa Chieko. There was no doubt that this person would also have information about her.
Who on earth could it be?
The feeling that I suddenly couldn’t trust the people around me made me feel all the more uneasy.
“Let’s get back to work, shall we?” Shioriko spoke up.
Just as I nodded to agree, the glass door opened with a loud noise. When I turned around to look, I saw an older man wearing sunglasses standing at the entrance. He wore a plain gray woolen coat and had a bright red knit scarf wrapped around his neck.
“Happy New Year, all.” Sakaguchi Masashi lowered his head and greeted us.
“I came to talk to you about my wife. Would you have the time to discuss?” Masashi cut straight to the point as he took off his scarf.
Some parts of it were threadbare and other parts thick; it was obvious at a glance that the scarf was handmade.
“Of course…what can we help with?”
“I heard Shinobu was asking you about a book she read as a child. I would like you to give me an overview of what you discussed.”
As always, he had an interrogative way of speaking and didn’t add any superfluous information.
Shioriko and I exchanged glances for just a moment.
“It was a request for us to find the book, but she didn’t know the title or the name of the author. Shinobu said she wanted to go back home to ask her parents about it and asked if we could go along with her…”
I answered his question since I was the one who talked to Shinobu directly. The moment he heard that she was planning to go back home, Masashi’s expression became gloomy.
“I see, that’s how it was.” He muttered to himself in a low voice.
“Is something wrong?”
I was starting to feel uncomfortable. Was there a reason Shinobu didn’t want to tell her husband the full story this time? After a brief silence, Masashi suddenly opened his mouth.
“I believe her real goal isn’t to find the book she read as a child. It’s to go talk to her parents.”
“Did you know that Shinobu doesn’t have a good relationship with them?”
“Yes, somewhat.” I nodded.
“Her parents are both very diligent people. They’re retired now, but her father served at the Kanagawa prefectural office for a long time, and her mother managed a tutoring school. I know she also has siblings, but I haven’t met them in person.”
I remembered Shinobu telling me before that her parents were intelligent and passionate about education. Considering their occupations, I could agree with that assessment.
“Her mother was especially strict with her, and that led to constant arguments between them. Shinobu’s relationship with her parents seemed to have calmed down for a period after she moved out when she graduated high school…but that’s when our marriage became a big issue.
“Since her mother would absolutely not approve of us, Shinobu cut off ties with her and entered into my family registry. She hasn’t been back home for almost 20 years now.”
“Doe she still meet with her father and siblings?”
“She occasionally talks with them over the phone, but rarely ever meets them in person from what I understand. She often jokes about how thin the bonds in her family are.”
Masashi, who had been indifferently explaining up to this point, grimaced slightly. Despite what Shinobu said, he must have felt that it was his fault that her relationship with her family was so strained.
“Perhaps her feelings have changed after all these years. Shinobu won’t say it herself, but I think she’s been looking for the opportunity to reconcile with her parents. People tend to better understand their parents’ feelings the older they become.
“Last November, Shinobu and I got a message from her parents saying that they wanted the four of us to have a meal together. It felt like they had always been waiting for the right time to restore their relationship.”
“Did you go?”
Masashi nodded solemnly at my question.
“They even made a reservation at a well-known restaurant in Chinatown. It was their first reunion in a while, and we were able to have a peaceful meal. Shinobu and her parents were enjoying themselves talking about old times. I didn’t want to get in their way, so I didn’t join in and quietly ate.”
I could vividly imagine Masashi sitting rigidly in a Chinatown restaurant as he went through a full course meal. That felt more real than him participating in the conversation.
“That’s when the conversation turned to the sickness in my eyes. They seemed so concerned that it made us feel uncomfortable. The problem came when they started asking detailed questions about how my eye illness came to be.”
I gulped. Decades ago, Masashi tried to rob a bank and the injury he sustained as he was fleeing the police remained in his eyes. His current illness was related to that event—of course, it wasn’t something that could easily be explained.
It was only a few months ago that Masashi was even able to come clean to his wife, Shinobu.
“My original plan had been to tell them everything, but Shinobu was adamant that we absolutely not say anything about my criminal history. I had already served my sentence and reformed…there was no need to go out of my way to talk about it. I tentatively agreed and went to the dinner meeting not planning to say anything but…”
…Masashi stopped talking suddenly. We looked at his face and saw large amounts of sweat flowing from his forehead.
“Did they…somehow find out?” My voice naturally lowered.
Masashi stuck his fingertip behind his sunglasses and rubbed the top of his eye as if to massage it.
“How did something like that happe—“
“—I told them.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. He outed himself on purpose?
“I just couldn’t allow myself to deceive the people who were right in front of me. Before I know it, I had already told them everything about my past. Her father still listened to my story, but her mother…I’d rather not say anything about that.
Going by Masashi’s vague explanation, something terrible must have happened. I could guess what came next, but I still wanted to hear it from him.
“What happened after that?”
“Shinobu argued with her mother and it almost turned into a fight. The meal ended there…all because I made a mess of everything.” Masashi took a deep breath.
It wasn’t that I didn’t understand his feelings about coming clean, considering how many years he’d suffered with the secret, but if he had just…
“I should have been a little more aware about the time and place…” Masashi said, as if he had read my mind. It seemed the man himself knew it best.
“Umm…what was it that you wanted to talk about…concerning your wife.” At Shioriko’s timid question, Masashi lightly nodded and continued talking.
“Shinobu got angry for my sake, but I believe she still wants to reconcile with her parents. She always seems to be lost in thought these days. When I ask her what’s going on, she says she’s thinking about the books she read a long time ago, but I don’t think that’s the entire truth. I believe she’s worried about the relationship with her parents and is looking for an excuse to go see them”
I felt a little doubtful. When I talked to her before, it had seemed like she didn’t want to go home and really just wanted to find book.
“It’s most likely that her parents—especially her mother—feel the same way. However, if they see each other again, it might turn into another fight. I’m not saying I want you to mediate between a daughter and her parents…but can I ask you to be there to make sure their quarrels don’t get too heated?”
Before Shioriko could respond, Masashi continued.
“By all rights the job of reconciling them should have fallen to me…but I am not permitted to go to their house. They won’t even talk to me if I try to contact them…it weighs on me to push this burden onto you, but please, I need your help.”
Masashi deeply bowed his head.
There wasn’t much traffic in the middle of a weekday, and we were on track to arrive a little earlier than expected.
“Did Masa really say that? That I want to fix my relationship with my mother?” Shinobu asked from the back seat.
“Yes…” Shioriko nodded in the passenger seat next to me.
The shop was closed for the day, and the three of us were currently in the van, headed to Shinobu’s home in Totsuka.
“C’mon, that’s totally wrong. I really, really don’t want to see them. Even this trip is putting me in a bad mood. Look at my face, see?”
I looked back in the rearview mirror and saw her pouting face white-lipped with apprehension. Masashi’s suggestion didn’t seem plausible if Shinobu looked so distraught just from the idea of seeing her parents again.
“I’ll never forgive her, not after what she said to Masa, and definitely not just because she’s my mother. I don’t think anyone else could understand.”
“I completely understand.” Shioriko nodded with an unusual forcefulness.
“There are some things that even parents cannot be forgiven for. If there’s discord between a mother and daughter, the original cause typically lies with the mother.”
“That’s right. Shop owner, you know what you’re talking about. That’s really how it is.”
Shinobu happily leaned forward and grabbed the passenger seat headrest—this was starting to sound more like a personal conversation.
We continued driving alongside the JR railroad tracks for a short while until I stopped to park the van in front of a house near the river. It was a large, older house with a kitchen garden set in the wide yard. There was a poster for some political party attached to the block fence.
“It really hasn’t changed at all.”
Shinobu flicked the politician on the poster’s head with her finger and opened the gate. The gatepost had a nameplate with “Kawabata” written on it in blackened block letters. That was probably Shinobu’s maiden name. She stopped in front of the garden furrows that were covered with white plastic with a scowl on her face.
“My mother is really into growing organic vegetables…but nothing she has is worth bragging about. They all grow terribly and usually end up tasteless. But her mood always improves when she talks about her garden.”
Shinobu’s sounded bitter as she talked about her mother. Parents and children that didn’t get along were similar everywhere it seemed.
“What is that…?” Shioriko was pointing to a small wooden house.
It was fairly old and had a roof that looked like it had been repainted many times over. The inside was empty, but there were traces that indicated it had been cleaned recently.
“Oh, that’s where we kept the dog when he was still around…I was in elementary school back then.”
The words written on top of the dog house had all but completely faded from the rain and wind, but were still somewhat legible.
“…was Friendly the dog’s name?”
It was a pretty strange name but—
—Shinobu burst into laughter.
“You’re being silly Goura. It’s friendly as in to have a good relationship. The dog had an actual name, you know.”
…So it was actually Friendly House. Certainly a pet owner would be friendly to their own dog, but I didn’t quite see the sense of writing that on the doghouse. Wouldn’t it have been better to write the dog’s name instead?
“Then what was the name of the dog?”
“Tobiku.” Shinobu replied.
“I found him abandoned near the river, and got my parents to let me start raising him…he was with us for about three years. My mother always hated him though. She used to say he was a stupid dog that barked too much.”
Shinobu frowned as she thought back to her childhood memories.
“Certainly he wasn’t the smartest dog, and often tried to run away when I took him on walks. But one day I came back from a school trip at my elementary school and found that he really had disappeared.”
“Why did you name him Tobiku?”
That was also a strange name in itself. Somehow it didn’t seem like a typical name for a dog.
“Umm…..well….ah! That’s it!” Shinobu’s face lit up.
“I got the name from the dog in the book! I told you about the dog who was abandoned when he grew up right!? That dog’s name was Tobiku.”
We finally got a name for one of the people—no, one of the animals that appeared in the story. It didn’t sound like an English name, so maybe the story took place somewhere other than America or England. Of course, there was also the possibility that the setting was entirely fictional.
Shioriko suddenly lowered her head and put her fist to her lips. She seemed to recall something.
“What is it?”
“Tobiku….I feel like I’ve heard that name somewhere before.”
“Eh? Really? You thought of something?” Shinobu quickly came close.
Shioriko pulled back a little from Shinobu’s close stare.
“N-no, it’s not that I remember anything but…”
“But…?” I urged her on.
“I usually remember everything I read, so once I learn the name of a character, I also remember the title of the book. I’m not having much luck this time.”
“And it’s not because you’re not feeling well?”
Previously, she was unable to remember information about a valuable book because of a high fever. However, Shioriko shook her head.
“I’m fine today…it’s just a little frustrating.”
It was finally the agreed upon meeting time, so the three of us walked to the entrance of the house. Shinobu stood in front of the doorbell, but didn’t make any move to press it. Her apprehension at seeing her family again was clear.
“Do you want me to press it?”
She shook her head hard.
“No, it’s OK. I got it,” Shinobu replied and took several deep breaths.
Just as she hardened her resolved and pulled her finger back to press the doorbell, the door opened all on its own, and an elderly man with a receding hairline appeared. His downward slanted eyes and round face resembled Shinobu’s to a frightening degree.
“Welcome…” He whispered and looked away from us. It didn’t really sound like he was welcoming us. In fact, it felt like what he wanted most was to shut the door.
“Where’s mom?” Shinobu asked.
“She’s in the bedroom upstairs…go on up.” He pulled back into the house before Shioriko and I could even introduce ourselves. By the time we stepped in, he could no longer be seen in the hallway.
“Was that your father?” Shioriko asked Shinobu.
“Yep. He’s really quiet, unlike my mother. He hasn’t spoken directly to me in decades…but that’s how he’s always been. I guess our personalities are way too different.”
Shinobu explained with a composed attitude as she took off her shoes. She likely didn’t get along with her mother for an entirely different reason.
“Please, go up, go up…it’s really not my house anymore though.” Shinobu grinned as she urged us on.
The bedroom on the second floor was apparently Shinobu’s old room. I peered into the half open door and saw a pure white bed, drawer set, and desk arranged on the floor. They all had showy designs with lots of curves—not at all like a Japanese room. It looked like a hotel room from the way everything was set up.
A white haired woman who’d been sitting in the room stood and walked towards us. Her round face was the same as Shinobu’s but the difference in their mouths widened the unbalance; her expression was sharp as if she were putting on a performance.
A mocking smile floated onto her face.
“What a surprise, you’re actually on time. How truly rare.”
Her voice was hoarse, but she had a crisp, youthful way of speaking. It furthered my impression of her being a pushy, strong willed person.
“Are these the friends from the secondhand bookstore you talked about? They’re so young…well, I suppose that’s fine. You’ve always been childish like that.”
The woman spat out sarcastically. She had an even sharper tongue than I’d imagined. Shinobu’s expression quickly stiffened.
“These two are from a well-established bookstore in Kita-Kamakura, Ms. Shinokawa and Mr. Goura”
“All the way from Kita-Kamakura?” Her exasperated voice echoed through the room as she looked at the ceiling in amazement.
“I’m sorry for the trouble my daughter is causing you…she really is stupid. I’m Kawabata Mizue, nice to meet you.”
After casually insulting her daughter, she had suddenly lowered her head. We scrambled to return the bow in a panic. Shioriko glanced around worriedly; she seemed to be frightened by Kawabata’s harsh choice of words.
“Right, about the book we talked about over the phone.” Shinobu got the ball rolling with a sullen look on her face. She probably wanted to finish everything up before she ran out of patience.
“Ah, the book you read as a child you mean.” Kawabata Mizue pulled a large cardboard box from out of the white desk.
“There were some books among the things you left behind. It’s all useless junk though.” She let out a derisive snort.
I was starting to feel more and more uncomfortable. She seemed to have something bad to say about her daughter each and every time she opened her mouth.
“…Can we open it?” I asked Shinobu, and she nodded wordlessly.
I looked through the contents and saw that there were indeed some books stuffed into the cardboard box. However, I only saw high school textbooks and old volumes of shoujo manga.
“You see how there aren’t any novels? This girl always hated reading. I would buy books for her sometimes, but she barely even looked at them.”
“Wh-what did you do with those books?” Shioriko, who had been silent until now, timidly asked. She clearly felt overwhelmed by Shinobu’s mother.
“I threw them out a long time ago. They‘d been stored in the basement since before this girl even left home. Other things aside, I didn’t think she’d have any need for books. Maybe it was mixed in among those.”
I went through everything in the box one more time, just in case, as I listened to the conversation. As expected, there wasn’t a single children’s book inside. Just as I resigned myself and put the textbooks and manga back into the box, a single photograph slipped out from between volumes of Asari-chan and Hot Road manga. It looked like it had gotten stuck between the books by chance. I innocently picked it up and brought it closer to my face.
Pictured was a young girl in a sailor uniform standing next to a middle aged woman wearing a dark blue suit. The middle aged woman didn’t have white hair or wrinkles, but she looked otherwise identical to the Kawabata Mizue in front of my eyes.
The problem was the young girl. Her bleached hair was styled into a frizzy perm and she was scowling directly at the camera with her hands in the pockets of a skirt that almost hid her feet. She was the very picture of a delinquent girl. So it wasn’t just in manga and dramas, there really were people like that, huh.
The makeup was different so I didn’t notice it at first, but now that I looked at her face more carefully, the girl really resembled Sakaguchi Shinobu.
“W-wait, Goura, give that back.”
She hastily snatched the photo away from me and stuffed it into the pocket of her coat.
“That was….not good…please pretend you didn’t see that, you two.” She smiled to hide her embarrassment. It seemed like it was from a past she wanted to forget, but her mother had already latched onto the photo.
“That’s the commemorative photograph we took when you got into high school, isn’t it? This girl had been like that since middle school. She really is stupid.”
She turned to Shioriko and me and, as if bragging, brightly continued.
“She used to hang around by Yokohama station every night, you know. Oh, and one night when she was in her first year of high school, she was caught by the police buying beer from a vending machine.”
“An upper classman asked me to buy it for them, I didn’t have a choice. I’ve told you that a million times already.”
“I’m saying that buying it just because you were told was in itself stupid. Either way, you still liked alcohol. Even when we were in Chinatown before, you got carried away and drank so much.”
“I stopped drinking a while ago. Weren’t you the one who ordered the bottle of Shaoxing wine in the first place?”
“Stopped drinking, you say? It hasn’t even been two months since then. I did it because you were in such a bad mood. Your husband was just sitting there sullenly and didn’t say a word the entire time. That was already creepy enough, but when he suddenly started talking…”
Suddenly, Shinobu hit the wall with the palm of her hand. The shock that was enough to shake the room itself ran through the walls.
“It’s one thing to talk about me, but if you insult Masa like that, I’ll throw you out of the window!”
Even Kawabata Mizue was pressured into silence by her outburst.
“…Can you remember anything about the book that Shinobu is searching for?” Shioriko murmured.
I looked at the side of her face. It may have just been my imagination, but her expression looked strained. Her countenance seemed clearly different from before.
“A dog named Tobiku appeared in the story, so this would have been a little before you started raising a dog in this house.”
“Ah, that stupid dog.” Kawabata Mizue spat out. “I knew that name Tobiku came from a book…I think the title was hard to remember. Let’s see…what could it have been?”
A silence hung over the room. There was no heating in the room, and all of our breaths were coming out white. Shinobu’s mother looked around the room as if to search for a clue, until at last she shook her head.
“Unfortunately, I just can’t remember.”
“Would your husband know by any chance?”
“I asked him earlier, but he said he didn’t know either. He was busy back then and barely spent any time at home. He probably wouldn’t have known what books a child was reading.”
“Is that so…” Shioriko sounded disappointed.
In the end, we weren’t able to find any clues even after coming all this way. Even Shioriko, who was so good at solving mysteries about books, was at a loss this time. There wasn’t anyone who knew the title of the book at this point.
“I’m very sorry. It seems we won’t be able to find your book right away way despite our efforts…” Shioriko apologized and lowered her head. At that, Shinobu lightly clapped both of her shoulders and grinned.
“That’s no good. Shop owner, you have no reason to apologize. I owe you a lot already and can patiently look for it with you. There’s still lots of time.”
“…either way, randomly trying to find a book you read decades ago was pointless to begin with.” Mizue continued with a self-satisfied expression.
“If it were really that important, you should have kept it with you. Stop dragging other people into these worthless matters. You’ve always been stupid like that.”
She put extra emphasis on the word stupid. The atmosphere in the room became even colder. I felt a gaze and turned around to look towards the door. Shinobu’s father, who we met earlier, was silently standing in the hallway. He had a look of distress in his eyes, but didn’t intervene. I was the only one who noticed he was there.
“…I’m leaving. I have nothing else here.”
Sakaguchi Shinobu sighed deeply and muttered. Her fists were tightly clenched, but she had yet to lose her cool. I closed the cardboard box and stood up. I really didn’t want to stay any longer either.
“Oh really? Well, say hi to your scary husband for me.”
A thick blood vessel popped up on Shinobu’s temple. She furiously turned around like she was ready to breath fire, but—
Unexpectedly, Shioriko was the one who raised her voice.
“It’s not worthless.”
“Wanting to take back a book that was once lost is not in the least bit worthless. Please take that back.”
Even I could tell that Shioriko was now fed up with Mizue.
“What on earth are you talking about?” Shinobu’s mother had a perplexed smile that didn’t reach her eyes.
I on the other hand understood Shioriko’s reaction. She also secretly had a book that she wanted to get back. A book that her mother had also once bought for her, Cra Cra Diary.
“Why is it that you still have the doghouse?” Shioriko pressed Mizue for an answer.
It was like a switch had been flipped in her personality, the way it always was when she solved mysteries. But this time, I didn’t know what she was going for. Why was she asking about the doghouse?
“You’re not using it anymore now that the dog is gone. Am I wrong?”
“That’s true…but what about it?”
“The dog hasn’t been around for many years, and yet that doghouse has been meticulously cared for. It’s because you want it to be ready for the day it comes back, isn’t it? Because you hope it will come back someday.”
The smirk slowly faded from Kawabata Mizue’s face. She scowled as if something ached.
“I wouldn’t say it’s because I want the dog to come back…It’s just that I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away. Everyone has things like that right?”
“Is the doghouse the only thing you haven’t thrown away?”
The expression from her face vanished. For a fleeting moment, she glanced at her daughter.
“…All of you please get out of this house. Right this second.” Mizue rasped out.
Shioriko and I returned to the shop after dropping Shinobu off at Zushi station. It was almost evening, but I went over to the main house after parking the car as instructed. Shioriko said she had something she wanted to discuss.
I could hear the sound of a railroad warning signal in the distance.
The two of us sat across from each other at a short round table in the Shinokawa house living room. It was a traditional Japanese style room with a tokonoma and deck, and the large flat screen TV and DVD player they bought last year somehow looked out of place.
I didn’t feel as much tension when I went into the main house nowadays. I used to try my best to avoid coming in, but I’d stopped feeling that way just recently. The Shinokawa sisters invited me for afternoon tea and dinner more often now.
“…I didn’t mean to say it like that.” Shioriko sounded despondent. She had been reflecting on her own words ever since Shinobu’s mother expelled us from her house.
“I ended up adding fuel to the fire despite Masashi’s request…”
“I don’t think you did anything wrong. It was inevitable that something would happen when those two met.”
Ultimately the search for the book had ended in failure, but Shinobu was oddly calm on the drive back home. She barely made any complaints about her mother.
“You were talking about the room we were in, weren’t you?”
The furniture in Shinobu’s room has also been maintained, just like the dog house. Even the “worthless things” her mother talked about before were still in the house. She did throw some of her daughter’s books away, but those were in storage before Shinobu had even left.
I didn’t think it was so much that she wanted Shinobu to come back home as much as it was reluctance to throw away all of her belongings. In the chance that she ever came back home, Shinobu could have a place to return to.
She must have realized that when she saw how shaken her mother was.
“So what Masashi said was correct…”
Sakaguchi Masashi’s opinion was that Shinobu and her parents were both inwardly looking for an opportunity to reconcile.
Kawabata Mizue, who despite continuously calling her daughter stupid, but was unable to throw her possessions away, and Shinobu, who didn’t want to see her mother from the bottom of her heart—they both likely had complex feelings.
“I believe Masashi’s assessment would be accurate for Kawabata Mizue, but Shinobu’s a little more…”
Shioriko abruptly stopped speaking, and took a sidelong glance at the sliding door to the kitchen.
“…what is it?”
She raised her index finger to silence me. With her legs still stretched out to the right, she moved over to the door, grabbed the door handle with her finger, and pulled it wide open.
Shinokawa Ayaka was standing there wearing her school blazer with her ear facing the door. Anyone could see that she‘d been eavesdropping.
“Waah!” Ayaka was startled by the sound of the door opening, and almost spilled the glass of milk she had in her hand.
It looked like she had really just arrived home, since her book bag was still on her back.
“Welcome back, Aya.” Shioriko said coolly.
“Eh? Y-yeah, I’m home…”
“You should at least take off your bag when you’re drinking milk.” Shioriko sounded like a parent.
Ayaka, embarrassed, walked into the room and put her school bag on the floor. She also sat on the floor with her knees together. Her expression was meek and she had forgotten to even drink another sip of milk.
“Aya, eavesdropping is bad.”
“Yeah…I’m sorry. My club ended early so I came home, and I heard your voices when I went to get some milk out of the fridge. Ah, I didn’t hear that much though!”
“How much did you hear?” I asked, and Ayaka took a gulp of milk.
“Just that there was a request from Shinobu’s husband…and she and her mom had an argument. Also something about part of her husband’s story being correct….that’s it.”
Unfortunately, that was everything. Well, I supposed it was also because we were careless.
“I won’t tell anyone so it’s OK! Really! I’ve been more tight-lipped than usual lately.”
Hearing lately made me feel all the more uneasy. Shioriko once told me that her sister was bad at hiding things. She certainly didn’t seem all that trustworthy.
“Anyway, don’t tell anyone, OK?”
“Alright, I won’t….sorry.”
With her head down, ponytail and all, she stood up, stepped back out of the room, and closed the sliding door.
“Now we can continue…”
With her right leg still stretched out, Shioriko inched closer to me until she was right in front of my face. Our knees were touching, and she looked up at me from behind her glasses. As always she had little interest in makeup. I didn’t notice it earlier, but suddenly became aware of a fragrance from her hair and skin. It probably wasn’t perfume.
“W-what is it?”
“I’m still worried that my sister can hear us.” She whispered secretively.
Although that was true, I now had something entirely different to worry about.
“This isn’t related to the search for the book, but I noticed something interesting when we were at the Kawabata house.”
“Do you remember how Shinobu said there was ‘still time’ while we were there?”
“I remember, but…” Honestly, it wasn’t something I thought much of.
“Didn’t that just mean it was OK if we didn’t find the book right away?”
“But it could also mean that there is some sort of time limit she had in mind.”
“Ah, you’re right.”
Come to think of it, that was an interesting choice of words. Shinobu hadn’t mentioned anything at all about a time limit—she just said that she was looking for the book because she couldn’t help being curious.
“What could she have meant?”
“I’ve been trying to think of an explanation for some time now…but I don’t have a clear answer at the moment.”
Her line of sight fell to my chest. The tips of her hair fell on her knees.
This is not good, I thought.
Even so, I intended to keep myself together.
Looking away from the downcast Shioriko, my eyes fell to the school bag that Ayaka had left behind. There were several trinkets hanging off the strap, one of them a keychain of a monkey-like character with large ears. No, maybe it wasn’t monkey, but a bear cub.
It was the same character we saw on Kosuga Nao’s passcase before. I couldn’t remember its name, but I supposed it was popular.
“What is it?” Shioriko must have noticed I was staring at something. She also turned to look at Ayaka’s school bag. It wasn’t like I saw anything particularly important though.
“Nothing…ah, I was wondering what that monkey-like character on the bag was.” Startled, I blurted out the first thing that came to mind. Shioriko pushed her glasses up with a finger as she squinted at it.
“Oh, umm, the brown one right? I feel like I saw my sister watching a DVD with that character. It was around the beginning of the year I think…”
It seemed she was having trouble remembering. This type of response was refreshing.
Come to think of it, her knowledge was mainly on book related subjects. She couldn’t demonstrate her unrivaled memory for things besides literature I supposed.
Suddenly, the sliding door opened up and Shinokawa Ayaka appeared again. She had changed out of her school uniform and was now wearing a jersey.
“Sorry, I forgot my bag….really sorry about that.”
She noticed Shioriko and me sitting together with our knees touching and made an exaggerated effort to look away with her eyes shut. It wasn’t like she was seeing anything she wasn’t supposed to though.
“I won’t get in the way anymore so don’t worry! Take your time…” She let out a line like a waitress at a Japanese inn and picked up her bag. Just as she was about to close the door—
“Ah, Aya, wait!” Shioriko hastily called to stop her. The door, already almost completely closed, opened up halfway.
“What is the name of that brown monkey character on your bag?”
Ayaka peered down at her bag, pinched the character and lifted him up. There was also a small figure of a dog attached to the same keychain. They must have come as a set.
“Do you mean this one? He’s called Cheburashka, he’s the main character of this puppet animation. From Russia, I think.”
Cheburashka. I felt like I had heard the name before.
“I borrowed the DVD from Nao. It’s pretty old, but really good. It’s a cute story but somehow has a lonely feeling. Nao and I went to see to see the new Cheburashka movie the other day.”
I finally realized the connection. Kosuga Nao had the same Cheburashka passcase because she was a fan. They’d probably been on their way to see the new movie the day Shinobu and I ran into them.
“The new movie was good too. I bought this keychain when we went to see it. Look how cute this dog is.”
Ayaka lightly touched the dog figure hanging from the keychain with her finger.
“His name’s Tobiku; he’s Cheburashka’s friend.”
“Tobiku?” Shioriko and eye raised our voices at the same time.
“Umm…yeah…what’s with that reaction?”
“Was Tobiku a dog abandoned by his owner?” Shioriko asked.
“Eh? I wonder…I guess he was crying by the roadside. But then he met Cheburashka and became friends with a lion.”
Shioriko and I listened to Ayaka’s perplexed response and glanced at each other. The dog became friends with a lion. The protagonist was different, but there were many similarities with Sakaguchi Shinobu’s story. The book she read must have been the source material for the movie, or perhaps she mistook the movie for a book. The reason Shioriko’s memory was so vague was because it was relating to a movie, not a book.
If we investigated this further we should find the book that Shinobu was looking for.
Though it seemed to me we’d solved the mystery of the book, Shioriko’s expression did not clear up.
“Nothing….I understand about the book, but it’s just that…”
She didn’t try to explain any further. At any rate, it seemed there were some mysteries remaining.
We met with the Sakaguchi couple again almost a week later.
Shioriko figured out which book Shinobu was looking for right away, but it took that much time to actually get it into our hands. It wasn’t listed in online catalogues for secondhand bookstores and didn’t appear in any web auctions either. We were finally able to find it after reaching out to an antiquarian bookshop that specialized in children’s literature.
“To begin with, children’s books are hard to find on the market.” Shioriko explained. “The readers are young, so the book are usually not in the best condition. They often get thrown away as well.”
Correspondingly, there were also few shops that dealt with children’s literature. Finding the book would have been a difficult task even if we’d known the title from the outset. We got lucky this time.
I had rented a Cheburashka DVD from the video store while we waited for the book to arrive. Taking a DVD case that had puppet characters featured prominently on the cover up to the counter was embarrassing, but I really wanted to see it no matter what.
When I took it home to watch, my mother at first exclaimed how shocking it was that I was still renting cartoons like this at my age, but at some point she came in to silently watch it with me. The DVD contained four different stories, but the book that Shinobu was looking for was covered by the first episode.
The setting was a town in Russia, and the story began with a mysterious animal arriving from Africa by chance. He fell every time anyone tried to get him to sit, so he was named Cheburashka, or “topple.”
Since no one wanted to take care of him, Cheburashka took to living in a telephone booth and began to get along with a lonely crocodile named Gena who was trying to gather friends. The dog we’d heard about from Shinobu, Tobiku, and the lion were also lonely characters who became friends with Gena.
And so, the lonely characters came together and built a “House of Friends.” They put their efforts together and didn’t get discouraged by the obstruction of a mischief loving old lady called Shapoklyak. However, by the time they were done, the characters were no longer lonely and didn’t need a “House of Friends” anymore.
In the end, they donated the house to a kindergarten, and the first episode ended with them reconciling with Shapoklyak.
I thought the characters were cute and that it was a good movie, but it bothered me that Cheburashka and his friends didn’t get rewarded in any way. Although they all acted cheerfully, the story still had a somewhat depressing undertone.
The Sakaguchi couple arrived shortly after the shop closed up for the day. Shinobu walked in with her hudsband’s hand on her shoulder as we totaled the day’s sales at the register.
“Shop owner, Goura, good evening.” As she greeted us with her usual cheerful smile, she noticed the other guest who’d arrived before her.
A round faced old man was standing with his back to the glass case.
Shinobu said that like she had something stuck in her throat. It was her father, Kawabata.
“Why are you here?”
“I wanted to know what kind of book you were looking for.” He replied falteringly.
Rather than being unsociable, it seemed he was just bad at talking. Even a few days ago when he called the shop, he asked over and over to be told what book his daughter was searching for. When we told him that it had arrived and about our promise to hand it over to Shinobu, he said he wanted to be there. He most likely wanted to meet his daughter again, but talked only about the book until the very end.
“I wasn’t told about this.” Shinobu looked dissatisfied as she looked at Shioriko and me.
Shinobu didn’t particularly get along with her father either. She told us before that he barely ever talked to her.
“I got the message from Goura, but forgot to tell you. I’m sorry,” Masashi quietly apologized.
He probably didn’t tell her on purpose. Shinobu did not further touch upon the subject of her father and turned to Shioriko.
“Well then, did you really find it? The book we were looking for.”
“I did…there is no doubt. As we discussed on the phone, it is the source book for the puppet animation, Cheburashka.”
“Ah, that’s right. We rented the movie after you told us about it. It really cute! Look at this!”
She took a cellphone out of her coat pocket and set it on the counter. A figure of Cheburashka holding an orange was attached to the strap.
“I ended up buying this. Isn’t it great!?”
“Ah….yes, it is.” Shioriko smiled ambiguously. She probably didn’t have much interest in small cute animals. Shinobu lightly touched the figure’s large ears.
“But this is completely different from the Cheburashka that I remember…maybe I was mistaken…”
I was also curious about that. The black tanuki-like animal that Shinobu drew before didn’t have the slightest resemblance to this one.
“No, you weren’t mistaken. The picture you drew neatly captured its image.”
“Please have a look.”
Shioriko reached under the counter and pulled out a single book— Uspensky’s Cheburashka & Friends, published by Shindokusho-sha. Ijuin Toshitaka was the translator. The cover had a blue background with a picture of a giraffe holding a sign. Next to it were a monkey, a crocodile, and a pitch black tanuki-like animal—
“Ah, that’s it! It was this book, this is what I drew!” Shinobu excitedly pointed to the black animal. Its face looked like a bear cub, but the long tail did indeed look like a tanuki’s. It was strikingly similar to Shinobu’s drawing.
“Is this really Cheburashka?”
Shioriko nodded. This one was as also a strange creature, but still, they were way too different. I doubted anyone would think they were the same character if they were placed side by side.
“Why do they look so different?”
“I did some research on it and…”
After a brief preamble, Shioriko began to explain. The Sakaguchis and I gathered around the counter.
“When Eduard Uspensky wrote Cheburashka & Friends—known originally as Gena the Crocodile and His Friends—the design for Cheburashka had not yet been finalized. The illustrations in the book were done in the late 1960s by a man named Alfeyevsky.”
“So when was the design finalized?”
“When the first animated film was released in late 1969. It was then that the director, Roman Kachanov, and art director, Leonid Shvartsman, collaborated to come up with the current design.”
That made sense. So the appearance used in the movie became the final one. The version drawn in the book seemed interesting too though.
“Hmm 1969 you say…I wasn’t even born back then. Was this book made before then?” Shinobu asked.
“No. The Japanese translation was published in 1970.”
“But the movie was already out by that point.”
“There certainly were already two Cheburashka films by then, but Soviet puppet animations were rarely ever played in theaters, and there were few who knew about them in Japan. I don’t believe they had any reason to use the design from the film.”
In other words, the Japanese translation had no relation to the movie, it was simply released as a children’s book by the author Eduard Uspensky.
“This version of the book eventually went out of print, but the same publishing company re-released it in 2001. The version of Cheburashka from the film was drawn on the cover, but the illustrations inside the book were identical to this one.”
“Can that version be purchased in book stores even now?”
“So that’s how it was…” Shinobu took Cheburashka & Friends and began to flip through the pages.
“This is really nostalgic…this is…a little different from the animation. There was supposed to be a rhino that ran around the town…ah there it is.”
Shinobu brought the open pages closer to her face and smiled happily. Perhaps this is how she read the book when she was a child.
Suddenly, Shioriko called out to Shinobu’s father. He had been hesitantly keeping his distance and standing alone.
“Can you please take a look at the book as well?”
The older man seemed a little lost, but he took an old pair of glasses out of his pocket. Shinobu silently handed the book to him. For a while, the only thing that could be heard in the shop was the sound of pages turning.
“…So this is the Friendly House.”
“What do you mean?”
“Isn’t that what’s written on the dog house? Friendly House,” he said that as he showed his daughter the book.
The Friendly House is now open
We welcome anyone in need of friends.
I remembered the doghouse at the Kawabata house. Perhaps this was the same “House of Friends” that appeared in the movie. A place where lonely people could gather. The house that everyone put all their effort into and worked hard together to build, but never ended up using. Like Tobiku, the name for the dog house also came from this book.
“That’s right. It came from this book.” Shinobu’s reply was unusually bright and dry.
“That’s the first time you’ve asked…I mean, you and mom barely ever asked me any questions. You never said anything, and mom was always scolding me. Nobody in the house ever knew what I was thinking.”
I gulped. So she picked up the abandoned dog and raised him in the Friendly House, where lonely people gathered. The feelings represented by her actions were painfully clear.
“I wanted a Friendly House of my own…that’s why I wanted to leave the moment I finished high school. I hated that house so much it made me sick.”
“Shinobu…?” Masashi whispered. His wife’s face was pale. She was probably feeling unwell, just like when we visited her parent’s home.
“I’m alright…I’m not angry or anything. It’s not like I ever listened to anything mom said either. Even Tobiku…I picked him up on my own and started raising him even though I was told not to. I caused a lot of trouble…I was so stupid.”
“I told you this a long time ago.” Masashi spoke stiffly. “You aren’t stupid. I guarantee it.”
“…Thank you.” Shinobu smiled.
Kawabata quietly took off his glasses and closed the book before returning it to Shinobu. His eyes looked far away and somewhat vacant.
“Really, I…don’t know much about you.”
“Well of course. You don’t talk with me that much even now…well, you weren’t ever in the house back then either, you were so busy with work.”
“…You’re wrong.” He flatly denied it.
“I…was avoiding you. Because I was afraid.”
Shinobu’s eyes went wide.
“Your personality and sense of values seemed so different from your mother’s and I…especially around when you were starting middle school. I just didn’t know how to treat you. The same goes for your mother. She didn’t know how to talk to you without criticizing you….she’s still like that.”
That straightforward confession left me dumbfounded. Shinobu made a sour face and looked away.
“I can’t believe a convenient story like that. She only calls me an idiot every time she sees me.”
“Shinobu…” Shioriko quietly spoke up. “Please remember the dog house.”
Shinobu fell silent. Kawabata Mizue had not thrown away the dog house. It wasn’t just that, she hadn’t thrown away her daughter’s belongings either.
“I want you to try talking with your mother again.” Kawabata finally looked his daughter in the eye. Sweat was starting to appear on his large forehead, perhaps due to the tension. Despite that, Shinobu shook her head.
“She can insult me if she wants, but I’ll never forget what she said to Masa. If she won’t come and apologize herself, then I don’t want to see her.”
“…Shinobu, I also think you should.” Masashi’s refined voice sounded in the room. “I should have chosen a better time and place to tell my story. It was only natural that your mother was startled.”
I remembered what Kawabata Mizue said before, to leave her regards with Shinobu’s scary husband. That wasn’t sarcasm—no, even if a big part of it was sarcastic, she’d probably been honestly afraid of him to an extent.
“Did your mother tell you about the time Tobiku went missing?” Kawabata abruptly changed the topic. For a moment, Shinobu was taken aback.
“I was told that he escaped through a gap as she was repairing the fence while I was on a school trip. The dog was so dumb that it didn’t even know his own house, is what she said. Is that wrong?”
“No, that part is true. What I want to say is, your mother has always been looking for Tobiku.”
“She said she was going to find him before you got back from your trip, and even took the day of work. She wasn’t able to find him, but even after that, she continued to look for him on her off days. She’s also the one who‘s been maintaining the dog house all these years. Your mother may have talked ill of the dog, but she did feel a sense of responsibility towards it. She’s not someone entirely without emotion.”
Shinobu’s eyes fell to the copy of Cheburashka & Friends in her hands. As if she were confirming something, she turned the book over several times.
“Alright. I’ll think about it.” After muttering that, Shinobu looked up and faced Shioriko across the counter.
“Thank you very much for this book. I’d like to buy it…how much does it cost?”
She reached for her wallet, but Shioriko quietly stood up.
“You don’t need to pay for it.”
I was also surprised. We paid money to buy the book from another store. It wasn’t an outrageously high price, but it wasn’t trivial either.
“No way, I can’t do that. Let me pay for it.”
“No. I want to give this to you. As a congratulatory gift.”
Shinobu, who was just about to pull out cash from her wallet, froze. She looked around at the other three people in the room before smiling weakly at Shioriko.
“So it was true.”
I didn’t get it. Masashi, who was standing next to Shinobu, also looked perplexed.
“How did you find out? It’s alright, please tell me.”
“I noticed that there were a lot of things you quit doing, like smoking, drinking alcohol, and wearing high heels. Moreover, your condition hasn’t seemed too good lately. There was a time once when my mother was like that…shortly before my younger sister was born.”
“Ah…” I exclaimed without thinking.
Even I could understand what Shioriko meant by that. This was what she had realized that was unrelated to the mystery of the book.
Shinobu placed the book on the counter and turned to look at her husband with a renewed expression. Masashi’s eyes were completely wide behind his glasses.
“Masa. I’m pregnant.”
I remembered what Shinobu told me when we talked near the beginning of the year.
I quit smoking…it’s better that way they say.
I thought she was talking about the increased price of tobacco at the time, but there was no doubt it was for the sake of her unborn child. She had given me the hint from the very beginning.
“I wasn’t able to conceive for a long time…and was starting to think it was impossible. I’m not at an age where I can try hard for it either… but still, we went on vacations many times right? While we were on vacation, we got in the mood, and…”
Shinobu put her index fingers together and fidgeted. Shioriko, who had been nodding as she listened along, suddenly turned bright red.
“Wh-why didn’t you…erm…tell me before?” Masashi finally asked with great difficulty. He was unusually tongue tied.
“Masa, I was having a hard time myself. I was worried about what would be the right time to tell you. I’m sorry for not saying anything…do you want to keep it?” She casually asked as if it were the most ordinary thing in the world.
Masashi’s pursed lips were trembling uncontrollably. No doubt there were numerous thoughts racing through his head.
“…If your fine with my children.” He sounded like he was about to cry.
“I’ve never thought of having anyone else’s. Silly.” Shinobu grinned.
That was when I realized that Kawabata had disappeared from behind the counter at some point. He was standing between the dim bookshelves and appeared to be talking softly to someone on his cell phone.
“I guess you also know the real reason I was looking for this book.” Shinobu asked Shioriko.
“That’s right…of course we already knew you wanted to read it…but you also want to read the book to your child one day too…is that it?”
“That’s exactly right. Shop owner, you really are smart.”
So this is what she Shinobu meant when she said there was still time left to find the book. If this was the case, then we certainly did have time.
Just then, Shinobu’s father, who’d been talking on his phone, returned. Seeing him standing near the counter as if he hadn’t left, his daughter frowned.
“You were talking to mom, weren’t you?”
“I was…” Kawabata readily admitted it. “Your mother noticed that your condition wasn’t good. She’s been saying that just maybe you were pregnant. She’s always been worried about you, that’s why…”
I want you to see her was probably what he wanted to say. Shioriko, Masashi, and I waited for Shinobu’s answer. However, she looked away in disappointment
“If that’s true, then she should talk to me herself. How can she be serious if she’s just hearing messages about my condition over the phone…”
Shinobu turned her eyes to the entrance of the shop and snapped silent. Someone was standing behind the glass door and curtain. It was a small seemingly female silhouette. Even I realized who she was right away.
“She came with me…at least up to Kita-Kamakura station.” Kawabata awkwardly explained.
The person outside hesitated for a little while before finally, bit by bit, opening the sliding door. Their figure came into view from between the curtains. Kawabata stood with her back to the door, seemingly frozen, as she stared at Shinobu with her large eyes. None of the other people in the shop even registered in her view.
“Have you been going to the doctor?” Her voice was surprisingly sharp.
“Do you really want to give birth?”
Shinobu nodded. Kawabata Mizue shook her head in amazement.
“You’re not young anymore you know. You’ll already have to look after your sick older husband. If you include giving birth to a child, it absolutely won’t be just a minor hardship. Have you considered that?”
Shinobu’s expression did not flinch even at this. She nodded even more vigorously than before.
“Mom, I…” Shinobu suddenly opened her mouth. “When I was little, I wanted to live in a friendly house…one where I wouldn’t feel lonely, and I could live in peace. When I got married to this man, I thought I had finally found a home like that.”
Her mother had an incredulous expression and began to reply, but Shinobu interrupted her and continued.
“But you know, I found that really wasn’t enough. This time, I will bring someone into this world. I’m not a lonely child anymore. I’ll be fine…I’ve gotten a little stronger, and…I’ll never shut out a child coming into my home. I would much rather go through any hardship.”
A hush fell over the store as Kawabata Mizue looked her daughter in the eye. For a while, she stood as still as a statue.
“You really are stupid,” she uttered at last, taking a deep breath.
“Father, I’m going home first.” Mizue turned on her heels and left. As expected, getting them to reconcile was impossible. Just as we began to feel disappointed, Kawabata Mizue, before closing the door, turned to glance at her daughter.
“Shinobu, next time, you should come to our house…together with your husband.” She said that in a slightly gentler voice than usual.
“And about what you said before…there’s a lot we need to talk about.”