Chapter 2: Fukuda, Sadaichi. Essay of Wise Sayings – Salaryman. June Paperback
I had to circle around the shop in order to get the car lined up on front of it. Turning onto the T shaped road, I drove down the narrow street parallel to the train station. I soon saw a tall, bespectacled woman with long hair standing of front of a sign that said “Purchasing of old books, providing honest valuation.” The autumn combo of her fur muffler and jacket,worn over a long dress was thrown off by the workman’s canvas bag hanging from her shoulder.
I parked the car in front of her, and stretched out my hand to open the passenger seat.
“Sorry for the wait.”
As I said this, she stooped a little to enter the car. She awkwardly folded her crutch and put on her seatbelt, holding her bag tightly on her lap.
“Ready to go?” I raised my voice, unable to calm my nerves.
I lowered the hand brake and slowly started to move the car.
The ground was speckled with autumn hues as we neared the gates of the Engaku Temple. Throngs of middle aged tourists crossed the road, keeping the car stuck in place – a common occurrence during excursion season in Kamakura.
“This is our first time, isn’t it?” said Shinokawa.
“What do you mean?”
“Going out together like this.”
I fell silent for a moment. It was certainly as she said. We hardly ever left the shop together like this.
But my heart wasn’t really fluttering at the thought.
“I might ask you to go alone sometime in the future. Not right away, but please pay attention and learn how this is done.”
“Got it.” I quietly nodded.
Despite what it looked like, this wasn’t a date or anything like that. We were actually in the old van that normally sat in the parking spot behind the bookshop. The back seats were folded down so there would be enough space if we had to take back a large number of books.
“The place we’re going to is in Onarimachi, right?”
“Right. It’s a pretty large house. I was told it has its own library.”
Onarimachi was a residential area near Kamakura Station. We were currently on our way there to purchase books as part of our “in home purchasing” program.
I crossed the railroad tracks and began to accelerate as I got onto the highway. I drove behind an orange colored transit bus and up a gently sloping hill.
“Have you been to this house before?”
I was startled for a moment.
“Well…we were in the same class so…”
It wasn’t really a lie. I got a request from a high school classmate who wanted us to buy some books from her personal collection. That’s why we were going to her house house right now.
However, the situation was actually little more complicated than that, and it was making us both somewhat nervous.
It all started two days ago.
There’s a small shopping district near the Ofuna station that’s been there since forever. The shopping district is filled with long, narrow streets and shops bustling with evening customers. Products overflow all the way out to the road which makes it difficult to pass without bumping your shoulder into something.
There are plenty of shops selling fresh food and daily necessities, but as you go further away from the station, the bars with signs advertising alcohol become more prominent. As the day comes to an end, the taverns start up business, one by one and salarymen returning home from work along begin with gather along with others in the neighborhood.
When this all began, I had been drinking at one of those bars. The seafood snacks were plentiful and otherwise cheap. That day I was with a friend from my high school days.
“Are you still working there? At the old bookshop?”
Sawamoto, the friend I was with, said as the beer came in, filled to the brim. There were only two people who had been in the same class as me for all three years of high school, and this man was one of them.
“I left at one point, but a lot of things happened and I went back.”
“Hm? When we last talked, you said that you only had the final interview left for that food company in Saitama.”
I wordlessly shook my head. He smiled to smooth things over, probably guessing what had happened.
“Well, I’m glad I’ve still got someone left from my hometown to drink with. There aren’t many people who would meet up to drink with me besides you.”
Before I even realized it, Sawamoto had already drained his mug.
On top of being strong with alcohol, his facial features were so finely chiseled it was almost frustrating. Sawamoto came from a family with generations of fisherman and fishmongers. He used to be captain of the Kendo club and was like a reliable older brother to our high school class.
He failed his national exams once, but made it into a national university nevertheless. After that, he decided to join a foreign electronics company.
“If you’re at the store, then there’s probably nothing to worry about. There was some trouble, right? I heard the owner was assaulted by a stalker.”
My eyes went wide. “You know quite a lot.”
More accurately, the stalker hadn’t been after Shinokawa Shioriko herself. He was after the rare Dazai Osamu book that she owned. The stalker, Tanaka Toshio, was arrested, and an account of the arrest, which included his full name, was published in the newspaper.
Shinokawa and the shop’s name should not have been included in the report.
“It’s an incident that happened in my hometown. Isn’t it natural that there would at least be rumors?” Sawamoto said loudly.
“What happened to the perpetrator?”
“The trial is still ongoing, but it seems he’s in jail right now.”
I wondered how many years he would stay in prison. Of course, he wouldn’t get a life sentence, which meant that we couldn’t ignore the possibly of Tanaka approaching Shinokawa again.
“So you’re going out with the shop owner then? She’s quite the beauty, isn’t she?”
I scowled and put down my mug. Was something like that also part of the rumors? No, it was just that Sawamoto’s information network was pointlessly broad.
“I’m not going out with her, I just work in the shop.”
“That’s odd…the story I heard was that you confessed to her after catching the criminal…”
“The story you heard was wrong, there was no confession, but the book…”
“No, never mind.”
There was the story of how she gave me the book in an attempt to reconcile, but explaining that properly would be difficult.
“But it’s not like you’re just her part timer, right? There has to be something.”
“…I wonder about that.”
She rarely talked about anything besides books. I couldn’t really get a sense of the distance between us, and didn’t really know how much I should delve into her personal affairs. I had never met anyone like her before. Sawamoto scrunched his large eyebrows together. It looked like there was something worrying him.
“I was talking to someone about a month ago when the conversation turned to you. I said that you were working at an antiquarian bookshop, and also ended up saying that you managed to get a girlfriend.”
“Who did you tell that to?”
I was trying to reach for the edamame, but stopped my hand. Kousaka Akiho. Other than Sawamoto, she was the only person I had shared a class with for all 3 years of highschool.
“So you keep in touch?”
“I call and send her emails every once in a while.”
There was a whirlpool of questions spinning in my head. Just as I opened my mouth, the beer refills and fried mackerel were delivered to the table. Sawamoto tapped on the bread with his hands as if he were thinking of something.
“Right, right. I even got an email from her yesterday. She said a relative of hers passed away, so she was going to be in the area.”
Sawamoto bit into his fried fish and held up his beer.
“She said that she might show up when I told her I was going drinking with you.”
I almost dropped my chopsticks. The displeasure must have also shown on my face.
“Is that a problem?”
“It’s nothing like that, but…”
I couldn’t prepare my heart so quickly. It had been three, no maybe four years since we last met. It felt like it had already been a decade though.
Well, that didn’t necessarily mean she would actually come. Maybe she would be busy with her relative’s funeral…I was telling myself that when –
“It’s nothing like that, but what?”
I suddenly turned around to see slender woman was standing there. Her blue dress and beige coat were certainly appropriate for formal family occasions. Her shoulder length hair had a gentle wave, and she was wearing light makeup.
“Daisuke, it’s been too long.”
Kousaka Akiho flashed her white teeth. The way she smiled hadn’t changed at all from long ago.
Sawamoto and I first got to know each other because our names were near each other in the class roster. That was also the reason why our assigned seats were initially near each other. Kousaka Akiho’s seat might have also been near mine, but I don’t really remember. She had already cheerfully joined in on our conversations before I even realized it.
She had protruding pale lips and wasn’t by any means someone who attracted a lot of attention. She did, however have a clear and carrying voice. Her responses were gentle, yet firm, and she occasionally said some surprising things. She had an air of maturity that other girls her age lacked.
Unlike Sawamoto who was kept occupied by kendo club activities, Akiho and I didn’t belong to any club. Although we often went to the family restaurant in front of Ofune station where she worked, we only really became close at the beginning of summer vacation during our second year of high school. We used to meet up at the library and finish our homework there.
Sawamoto started going out with an underclassman girl from the kendo club, and the two of us ended up spending more time together as a result. We didn’t have any pastimes in common, and since both of us didn’t speak much, just conversing about what happened at school was enough. But by the time autumn rolled around, we had already become nigh inseparable. There were already rumors that we were going out before we even realized our own feelings for each other. It wasn’t until winter that the rumors reached our ears. Unlike me, who became flustered, Akiho kept her cool.
She was completely unreadable. Then one day, as we headed home from school, she suddenly spoke up.
“After exams are over, why don’t we start going out?”
I think I was shocked speechless at the time and only somehow managed to stammer out a response. That was the first time we mutually affirmed our feelings.
Typical of a couple studying for exams, we were well behaved for the most part. Sometimes we would take a detour when going to cram school and continue behind the abandoned factory with our hands held. Akiho’s hands were much smaller and warmer than I thought they would be.
In the spring of the following year, I somehow managed to get into the economics department of some nameless school and Akiho received an acceptance letter from a public university’s literature department. However, she ended up choosing to be a photography major in the fine arts department at a private school. Her declaration that she would become a photographer at any cost shocked me and everyone around us.
I knew she would sometimes bring a large SLR camera with her on dates, and that she used to buy replacement lenses at her part time job. However, I was certain that it was just a hobby.
I think it was around then that I first began to notice the cracks forming in our relationship. Why didn’t Akiho tell me anything about this? Did I really not understand her at all? Despite that, I was happy we were released from our exams, and the unease soon disappeared from my mind.
Kousaka Akiho didn’t like to talk about her family. Her parents were divorced and she lived with her father. She and her father did not get along. That was about the extent of what I heard – bits and pieces like that.
Her curfew was strict to the point of being annoying. Even when she started attending school in Tokyo, she had to be back in Kamakura by 8pm, no matter what. The campus was in Nerima, Tokyo and it took 3 hours for her to get there and back. She pretty much had no free time during weekdays.
Despite being unhappy with it, Akiho still abided by her curfew. However, she did slip up one day when were on a date at Motomachi in Yokohama. We went to see an old church on a hill, and ended up getting lost on the way back. She hurried and got on the Negishi Line, but by the time she got back to Kamakura, it was already too late. 8pm had passed.
I ignored her insistence that just taking her to the station was enough, and decided to escort her all the way to her house. She lived in a residential area of Onarimachi, and I was shocked to see the huge mansion she called home. The massive gate and Japanese landscape garden were shocking enough, but what really surprised me was the family member there waiting for her.
A short old man stood ramrod straight on the stepping stones with his arms crossed. His short grey hair and tailored, dark colored Japanese clothing looked good on him. This was most likely her father, the head of the household. His cold gaze was chilling.
“Pleased to meet you. My name is Goura Daisuke.”
Of course, I didn’t show up here just to turn back. I lowered my head deeply.
“I got lost today and ended up dragging Akiho along with me. I’d like to apologize.”
There was no response.
I timidly raised my head and the old man jerked his chin at my girlfriend and returned to the house. She followed him inside in a half-run and was left standing alone outside the gate. Thinking back on it, I believe that night was the turning point in our relationship.
Kousaka Akiho moved out of her home and began living alone, closer to Tokyo just before the rainy season began. Just the fact that she was now free to do whatever she wanted made me happy since no one could intrude or deny us the sweet time we spent together.
However, after she moved out, our time together actually decreased.
She apparently had to pay for her own living expenses, causing her to work several part time jobs at once. Around this time, I also entered the university Judo club and spent a lot of my time training with the goal of obtaining a belt.
Since it had become harder for us to visit each other, the interval of time between dates slowly began to increase. The few times we were actually able to meet up, she looked worn out and was smiling less and less.
If she had said something about her exhaustion and dissatisfaction then, perhaps we could have dealt with it. However, she didn’t like to show other people her vulnerabilities. In all the time we were going out, I can’t remember her ever asking for advice. I also felt that there was nothing I could do to understand her. Had we been children, it would have been simple, but as it was then, I had no idea how to bridge the gap between us in one go.
That summer of awkward inaction passed, and I didn’t so much as receive a text from her as autumn ended and winter began. Although she never said anything, it was certain that this relationship was over. Even so, it frightened me to see myself starting to think that that was alright. For couples who began going out in high school and then went to separate colleges – growing distant with each other and naturally breaking up was a common enough story.
However, I still wanted to know where things stood. The last time I saw her was during Christmas Eve in a public park near Ikebukuro station. She had become thinner and looked even more worn out than before. Perhaps in order to be able to take a photo at a moment’s notice, she had an obtrusive SLR camera hanging on her neck.
“We’ve been friends since our first year of high school, but if things keep going the way they are, our relationship is going to end.”
After much consideration, I finally let her know what I honestly felt. I didn’t know what else to do.
“If you can’t go out with me, then tell it to me straight.”
It was cold out and snow threatened to fall at any moment. The sun had set and there was no one else in the park besides us. Our breath hung in the air, turned white by the cold.
After a long pause, she finally muttered her response. It was the same beautiful voice she had used when we first met.
“It would be better if we went back to being friends like before.”
Those were the words that ended our relationship.
She said to go back to being friends, but we ended up not contacting each other at all after that. It wasn’t until much later that we realized it. Neither of us had said “I love you” even once in all the time we had been going out.
“… back then I still wasn’t used to living alone, and working those part time jobs really was exhausting, you know,” Akiho said casually as she sipped on her lemon sour. She had already drunk half her glass.
“Of course, it wasn’t like I could afford to slack off on schoolwork either…it got so bad that I didn’t even really have any time for other people anymore.”
“Ah, I think I get it. Things changed too much and you were overwhelmed, something like that,” Sawamoto loudly interjected.
“Even so, I always thought I could’ve treated Daisuke better. If it turned out that I could never look him in the eye again because of what happened…”
“But we’re here right now aren’t we?”
I shook my index finger in front of me as I brought a second beer to my mouth. Good grief, we had been reunited for all of ten minutes. I wasn’t expecting us to start talking about such a serious subject.
“Ah, I see…sorry about that.”
“No need to apologize.”
It’s not like I was angry about what happened back then. Even I understood that there was no helping it.
Our eye met for a moment and Akiho broke into a wide smile. I wondered if she had always been like this. She had been calm and collected in the past, but now she seemed bolder.
“So Kousaka, you already found a job, right? Where do you work?”
Sawamoto changed the topic at just the right moment. He asked the question bluntly, reading the mood unexpectedly well.
“At a photography studio in Sangenjaya. One of my upperclassmen put in a good word for me and now I work as an assistant,” Akiho answered.
“And well, the pay really sucks, but now I can seriously take photos. I’ll give guys the URL later, I also uploaded them on the internet …”
She excitedly began talking about her work. She said that she had recently been visiting old apartment buildings constructed in the Showa era to take portraits of the residents alongside the architecture. It seemed she was expending a lot of effort in order to become a pro photographer.
Compared to the past, she spoke a lot more now and was better at interacting with people. I could see her getting tossed around in an unforgiving workplace environment. As I listened to her story, I found myself straining my ears for any details about her love life. It surprised me that I was even paying attention to that. Who she was going out with now had nothing to do with me.
“So is Daisuke’s girlfriend really an older lady from an antiquarian bookshop in Kita-Kamakura?”
Having noticed my silence, Akiho changed the subject.
“About that … it seems that they aren’t actually dating yet.”
The one who spoke up was none other than Sawamoto.
“Huh? I thought it had to be true since you were the one who told me.”
“He just works part time at her store, nothing more than that. It’s kind of in a delicate spot right now.”
“Ah, so that’s how it is. Well, we should go to the store and try to set those two up.”
The two of them made fun of me while grinning broadly.
“You guys are getting ahead of yourselves,” I interjected.
“I have a lot deal with, you know.”
“Then isn’t it fine to discuss it? You can ask us anything you want.”
“Right, right. We’ll give you advice any time.”
Sawamoto and co. got even more fired up. It looked like they planned to make fun of me until the very end. With the alcohol starting to take effect, the mood had become very lighthearted. It somehow reminded me of the conversations we used to have back in high school.
While I was looking at the side of the seemingly calm Akiho’s face, the conversation turned to her.
“Is it alright for you to be here drinking with us right now? There was a funeral right?”
“Today’s the memorial service and, well… it looked like everything would be alright even if I wasn’t there, so I just left in the middle of the ceremonial dinner.”
Normally it wouldn’t be alright if someone “just left in the middle of the ceremonial dinner.” Perhaps, just as in the past, she didn’t get along with her relatives.
“Even so, we haven’t heard from you yet. Who passed away?” Sawamoto asked. He had already polished off his third beer.
“It was my father,” Akiho answered without hesitating.
The playful mood from just moments before dissipated. This was the first I had heard of her father being here in Kamakura. Sawamoto and I carefully set down both of our mugs and began solemnly conveying our condolences. Akiho embarrassedly shook her head and waved her hands in front of her.
“Ah, it’s fine, it’s fine. Sorry about that, I’m making you guys worry. I had known his health was declining for a while now, and hardly spent any time with him anyway.” She began to tell us about the heavy matter of her family’s circumstances.
It brought to mind that night long ago when I had escorted Akiho back home after she had broken curfew. At that time there was only a grandfatherly old man standing at the gate. I suppose her father had just stayed inside that night. He had no intention of waiting outside until his daughter finally came home after missing curfew.
“I actually came to talk to Daisuke about something today.”
Akiho looked directly at me, suddenly becoming more serious.
“Huh?” My heartbeat started speeding up. I wondered what she was going to say.
“I tried to get in touch with you directly, but your phone number and email address were different from before.”
I switched carriers and got a new phone before I started my job search. I didn’t know Akiho’s phone number or email address either. I had tried to make things final after the breakup and so I erased her number.
“What did you want to talk about?”
I couldn’t help putting up my guard. For a girl that broke up with me four years ago to contact me – it couldn’t be anything ordinary. Unless it was a religious solicitation or to ask me to join an MLM scheme.
There was also one last remote possibility. What was I going to do if she said something like, “Let’s start over and try one more time?” Of course, I already had Shinokawa — Wait, already had Shinokawa?
It’s not like we were dating. Like Sawamoto said earlier, ‘it was a delicate situation.’
“It’s about your job,” Akiho continued.
“Right, it’s with that book shop you work at. I have some old books I want to sell.”
All the strength left my shoulders. I was really overthinking this. I let myself get carried away and felt ashamed. I had always been overly self-conscious.
“The books my father left behind, I’d like to sell them. To the Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia.”
Shinokawa and I passed an elementary school in Onarimachi. Its front gates towered upwards like something right out of a period drama. They were said to be the last vestiges of an imperial villa located here long ago.
Akiho’s house was near the elementary school. It was an attractive Japanese style house with a dark gray roof. Nothing at all had changed since the time I had escorted Akiho home all those years ago. I parked the car in a corner of the premises and turned to face the main entrance through the gate. Shinokawa was using a cane, and her gait was a little unsteady when we stepped out of the car. Walking on the stepping stones was probably going to be difficult for her.
“All you alright?”
I slowly walked next to her. My plan was to support her just in case it looked like she was about to fall. It had been a long time since I last set eyes on this garden with the deer-chasers and stone lanterns. Just like I thought the first time I came here, Aliho must have come from an extraordinarily wealthy family. If you carefully looked into the lake you could even see bright red carp swimming in the water.
“Why did it have to be our shop specifically?”
Shinokawa murmured while looking down at her feet.
“There are plenty of other antiquarian bookshops near here. Why were we specifically chosen to buy their books?”
“Apparently it was in the will of the late owner of these books. Did he sell books to us in the past?”
Akiho’s father managed a restaurant chain in the prefecture, but it seems he fell ill and had been recuperating in his home for the past few years. I was told that he had a very fastidious personality and had laid out detailed instructions on how his personal library would be handled in his will.
An assessment of the estate would be carried out as soon as the funeral proceedings ended and everything settled down. A price would be put on anything with a clear value during this evaluation. Anything that didn’t have a clear value would be left behind, and so on and so forth. I supposed they found that properly dealing with the library was a pain.
I hadn’t heard much about the book collection in question. Akiho said that there were quite a few historical novels, but it looked like even she didn’t know much about it besides that. She said that she didn’t have any relatives who were into books either.
“I don’t believe I’ve met him before, but it’s possible that he was a customer back when my father ran the shop.”
The two of us stopped in front of the entrance.
There was no sign of anyone inside the building – no, there was actually the faint sound of a piano coming from inside.
Is that Akiho playing?
I hadn’t heard of her taking piano lessons, but it wouldn’t have been so surprising if she had another side to her after such a long time. It was a beautiful song with a calm tempo.
Shinokawa stood in front of the sliding door and pressed the old fashioned buzzer. The piano suddenly stopped and I hear the sound of footsteps coming towards the door.
I glimpsed someone’s figure coming towards us from behind the clouded glass. The sliding door opened and the person who stood there….
…was not Akiho.
A middle aged woman with streaks of grey in her hair, wearing a plain brown kimono with a grey sash, stood there looking coolly at us. She had sharp facial features and scowling eyes.
“And who might you be?”
She asked the question imposingly. It was hard to believe that she had been the one playing such beautiful music. You would have never been able to tell by looking at her.
Shinokawa stepped forward and deeply lowered her head. When she returned to an upright position, her entire face was flushed red.
“Thank you for your continued patronage. We’re from Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia, we came to purchase books.”
I would hesitate before saying that she was being crisp and proper, but I guess it was a formal enough greeting.
“Ah, so you’re the ones Akiho called.”
It was only for a moment, but she spat out Akiho’s name like it was unpleasant. I didn’t know what kind of relationship she had with Akiho, but it looked like they weren’t on good terms.
“This way please.”
She turned back into the house and urged us inside. Leaning on her cane, Shinokawa slowly took off her shoes and put them together facing the same direction in the entranceway.
“It must be tough having a bad leg.”
She spoke bluntly which made it sound like she was urging Shinokawa to hurry up.
Shinokawa and I were now in the house and the woman in the kimono began to lead us down the hallway.
“The books are in the library further in.” She spoke without turning back to face us.
“Uh…Umm I would like to light incense for the recently deceased….would that be a problem?”
The woman in the kimono suddenly turned her head and glanced at us from over her shoulder. Her face was completely unreadable, making it hard to tell what she was thinking.
“That’s very thoughtful of you. This way please.”
She opened the sliding door next to her and entered. It was a sunlit Japanese style room. A large window faced the garden. We could see the koi pond and skipping stones from where we stood.
The tokonoma inside the room contained a startlingly large altar. It was a shrine set up to contain the ashes during the seven week mourning period.
Due to the sheer number of flowers on the altar, both the portrait and the ashes were obscured. A similar shrine was set up at my house when my grandmother died, but it was nothing this extravagant. The difference in wealth was apparent even in situations like this. The two of us sat in front of the altar to burn the incense. Since she was the shop owner, Shinokawa went first. When it was my turn, I lowered my head in front of the platform and looked up at the memorial photograph. This would be the first time I ever saw Akiho’s father’s face.
I unconsciously let out a voice. The person in the photo was a white haired man wearing traditional Japanese clothing. His sharp cheekbones resembled the woman in the kimono, but his sunken eyes looked like Akiho’s. The face was a lot gentler than I remembered it to be, but this was the same old man who had been standing in the yard when I escorted Akiho back home that night.
Shinokawa softly cautioned me. I came back to my senses. I hurriedly finished offering the incense, stood up, and stepped away from the shrine. So the man I had met back then was Akiho’s father. He might have been 60, no, perhaps even 70 years old when I met him.
“Was there something about my father…?”
The voice of the woman in the kimono standing off to the side pricked my ears. I spoke without thinking.
“Ah, excuse me.”
We left the Japanese style room and headed back to the library. Shinokawa’s cane sounded throughout the hallway with each step. I followed behind the two of them, my thoughts turned to Akiho’s family situation.
The woman in the kimono called the old man “father” just now. She wasn’t old enough to be Akiho’s mother, which meant that she was most likely her older sister. Of course, they had different mothers, which made them half siblings.
I could kind of understand why Akiho didn’t get along with her relatives, and why she left in the middle of the ceremonial dinner. She said her parents were no longer together, but had never mentioned whether they were divorced or had been in previous marriages. What if…
“Which reminds me, there is one thing I’d like you to be aware of.”
The woman in the kimono stopped in front of the door at the end of the hallway and turned around. The library was most likely behind this door.
“I heard my father talking to an acquaintance on the phone when he was alive. Apparently there’s a book worth some hundreds of thousands of yen somewhere in this collection. We don’t know which one it is, but if you find it, please appraise it accurately.”
She glared at us. It was clear that she would not forgive us if this book was sold for less than it was worth.
What an unpleasant way of asking. Especially coming from someone who eavesdropped on her father’s phone conversations without permission.
“Of course, we will keep an eye out for it.”
Shinokawa said this in a softer voice than she normally did. As usual, she fumbled over her words a bit, but today she also seemed strangely on top of things.
“I appreciate it.”
Satisfied, Akiho’s older sister opened the door. Inside was a wide western style room with wooden floors. The interior was dim, with very little natural light coming in. In order to protect their books from being damaged by the sunlight, many people setup their libraries in north facing rooms.
Three of the walls had bookshelves built right into them. There were also cardboard boxes piled on the floor. Akiho was in the middle of taking some books out of one of them when we walked in. Her hair was tied up to make it more manageable and she wore a plain sweater with jeans. This suited her more than the one piece dress she had been wearing the other day.
“Ah, Daisuke, you’re already here.” She stood up swiftly and turned to face Shinokawa. Why did it feel like I should be running away?
Shinokawa was the first to open her mouth.
“Thank you very much for making this order. My name is—”
“Shinokawa Shioriko, right?” Akiho said, as if to confirm.
“I’m Kousaka Akiho. I used to be Daisuke’s classmate.” Akiho gazed fixedly at her conversation partner. Shinokawa remained quiet, keeping her eyes locked on the ground. She was starting to become increasingly distressed. Akiho smiled at me meaningfully.
“She sure is cute. Good for you Daisuke.”
Why was she putting me on the spot like this? How was I supposed to react to that?
“The room’s covered in dust. Akiho, at least open the window.” The woman in the kimono made an unpleasant face and spoke up.
There was already a large stack of old books piled up on the floor. The dust must have come from the cardboard boxes and had accumulated from being left in storage for so long.
“It’s just the window, why don’t you open it yourself?” Akiho smiled and responded to her older sister without looking at her.
“You’re always complaining and never want to actually do anything.”
It felt like the temperature in the room suddenly dropped. I thought back to the piano performance earlier. Akiho’s older sister was leisurely playing the piano while Akiho herself was here getting covered in dust.
“How absurd. You were the one father asked to take care of the books. You were also the one that told father about the shop, were you not?” The woman in the traditional clothes did not seem angry and replied in an uninterested manner.
“You eavesdrop on people’s conversations so easily. What an unpleasant habit.” Akiho’s smile disappeared. She did not lose to her sister at all in terms of ferocity.
“I just have good ears is all. You and father both have loud voices and always argued whenever you saw each other.”
The older woman evidently remembered that there were still outsiders in the room. She looked at us briefly and spoke with a sour look on her face.
“Sorry we showed you something so unsightly, please pay it no mind.”
That was kind of impossible.
“Anyway, I’m leaving this to you. Let me know what price the books will sell for as soon as you know. And make sure you don’t get tricked.”
“I understand, Mitsuyo.”
Akiho’s older sister, Mitsuyo, sneered and turned around towards the door. Likewise, Akiho bared her teeth in derision. Their facial expressions somehow resembled each other.
The gut-wrenching exchange ended, and the three of us were left alone in the library. Akiho turned towards Shinokawa and lowered her head.
“You shouldn’t have had to see that. I’m sorry.”
“No, no, it’s quite alright.” Even after saying that, Shinokawa was still unable to hide her astonishment. We only came here to purchase books. She wasn’t expecting to see a heated argument between family members.
“Is it always like that between you and your sister?”
“It’s been like this since forever. Hey, you know, I was an illegitimate child.”
We lapsed into silence. The sound of a piano could be heard again, playing from somewhere within the estate. “Mitsuyo” had started playing again.
“You never told me that before.”
This confidence of hers was new. The Akiho of the past would have never been able to speak so boldly. She would not have told me this even when I was going out with her.
“But she’s still one of my better relatives. She doesn’t talk behind people’s backs and is always up front. Even when talking about money, for example.”
I was taken aback. Given that Akiho’s father died, there should have been issues of inheritance. If she didn’t get along with her relatives, there’s no way there wouldn’t be conflict. Akiho’s older sister must have insisted that everything get appraised accurately because this library was part of that inheritance.
“So, could I ask you to accurately appraise the books as well?” Akiho asked Shinokawa.
“Is there anything you need? If so, I can bring it for you.”
“N-no, there’s nothing in particular.”
Shinokawa, who had been looking into her shoulder bag, stopped. It looked like she was having trouble finding something. After rustling through the bag, she spoke with a resigned expression on her face.
“I’m very sorry….umm…If you don’t mind, I umm….forgot to bring a memo pad.”
Was it something to get that upset about?
Akiho smiled and nodded.
“Got it. I’ll see if I can find one for you.”
She lightly walked out towards the hallway. As she exited, she shot me a fleeting glance.
“Good luck with the job, Daisuke.”
With a sound, Akiho shut the door. Her voice, which had just called my name, hung in the air.
“Eh? What is it?”
“…is what she called you, right?” Shinokawa spoke earnestly.
For a moment, I thought Shinokawa was calling me by my given name.
Akiho was the only one who used to call me by that name while we were in school. Moreover, it was something she started doing after we started dating.
“Oh, I see. Was that because you were in the same class in high school?” Shinokawa asked, pressing for information. She looked at me with inquiring eyes from behind her glasses.
I considered telling her. It was probably obvious if you looked at us anyway. I didn’t want to talk about it, but it wasn’t really a secret either.
“Truth is, we were in a relationship in the past. Until the first year of college.”
As soon as I said that, her wide eyes grew even wider. Her usual fair complexion turned a deep red.
“Ehh? That’s what it was?” Her voice cracked. No matter how you looked at it, she was seriously surprised. She really didn’t notice at all. While she was certainly astute when she came to books, it seemed she was ignorant about things like this.
“I-I’m sorry…I didn’t mean to pry….”
“It’s alright, I chose to talk about it.”
I felt a little bad about being so frank, but still – why did she ask that question just now?
“Was there anything you were curious about?”
“No, it’s just that I went to an all girl’s school…and I was wondering if people who went to mixed schools called each other by their given names even if they were of the opposite sex. But that couldn’t be right.”
Shinokawa looked down in embarrassment.
“Being able to call a man by their given name somehow sounds nice. I haven’t had much opportunity to do that so far…”
What was on my mind was that she said that she hadn’t had “much” opportunity. This might have meant that she didn’t have “absolutely no” experience.
“Shinokawa, are you dating anyone?”
Somehow, I felt like this was the right atmosphere to ask that question. If possible, I would have liked to ask her more casually.
“You mean…me?” Shinokawa pointed at herself with her index finger.
It was a gesture that said that she did not quite understand the question. I nodded yes, and her long black hair shook like a whirlwind as she furiously shook her head from side to side.
“Heavens no! …Me!?…Such an absurd….”
She didn’t need to go so far as to call it absurd, but now there was no doubt that she wasn’t seeing anyone. I was a little relieved. What type of person did she like? Was there anyone she was interested in? I felt like trying to ask those questions but…
Shinokawa’s strange sneeze made me miss my timing. Come to think of it, Akiho hadn’t opened the window earlier. There was a large quantity of white dust floating around.
“Should I ventilate the room?”
“Ah, no, it’s alright.” She lightly waved her hand.
“So, shall we begin?”
I took all of the books out of the cardboard box as instructed and put them in a pile on the floor. After that, I organized the books, facing the spines in the same direction in order to make them easier to evaluate.
I took a quick glance around at all the books stored in the library. What caught my eye was the sheer number of books by authors like Fujisawa Yuuhei, Shiba Ryoutarou, and Ikenami Shoutarou. All of them were historical and period novels, and the like. In addition, there were business related books on economics and workplace management. Outside of that, there were barely any other types of books.
Shinokawa was standing in front of a bookshelf scanning the book spines from top to bottom. She was pulling books off the shelf one by one and adding them to the several ever-growing piles on the floor. She favored one leg as she worked, but seemed to be getting the hang of it.
“How are you sorting these books?” I asked Shinokawa.
She answered without pausing her work.
“There are books that need to be appraised individually, books that can be appraised in a bunch, and books that cannot be appraised at all. Whenever I have a lot of books to appraise, I start by separating them into these groups. I’m sure there are other ways of doing this but…oh?”
Shinokawa unexpectedly picked up a book and turned to face me. The book had the title “Swine and Roses” printed on a yellow cover. The author was Shiba Ryoutarou.
“This one’s rare.”
I knew who Shiba Ryoutarou was. His drama, Clouds above the Hill, always played on TV. This was the first I had heard of Swine and Roses though.
“What kind of book is it?”
“It’s a mystery novel.”
“Mystery? Not a historical book?”
“He wrote it at his publisher’s request during a time when societal mysteries were in high demand. The female protagonist’s boyfriend dies a suspicious death, so she teams up with a reporter acquaintance to unravel the mystery and…here, take a look at this.”
Shinokawa took the book out of the box and turned to a page towards the back. I timidly looked at the part she was indicating. It looked like the author’s afterword:
…any particular reason for writing this. Mystery novels are becoming popular so I was asked to write one as well. I have neither the interest, nor the talent, nor the knowledge to write mystery novels. I was told to write one, and after a long struggle, I managed to finish this. Of course, this is the only one of my works that could be called a mystery, and I certainly don’t intend on writing another one.
“It’s pretty amazing, isn’t it?”
He mentioned that he was asked to write the book by the publishing company twice in that one short article. I guess he was extremely reluctant to write this novel.
“It gets even better!” Shinokawa whispered as if she were sharing a secret.
I truly dislike the detectives that show up in mystery novels. Why do they have to go so far to uncover other people’s secrets? I cannot understand the source of that passion. Their perverse ways of solving mysteries are so strange that they themselves become the theme of the novel, or get to the point where you might even consider them psychological case studies.
My eyes went wide. I had never, ever heard of an author completely rejecting an entire genre in the afterword. What would the people who bought this book have thought?
“Is this book interesting?”
“Let’s see…the book has a fairly dark tone, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily bad. I thought the character portrayals were fitting …”
She quietly closed Swine and Roses.
“This book was even taken out of Shiba Ryoutarou’s complete works. Several other books were also taken out of the complete collection. They have all since become collectors’ items.”
“So could this be the book that was said to be worth hundreds of thousands of yen?”
“No…the book’s condition isn’t that good and the wrapper is missing, so at best …”
A piece of paper unexpectedly fell out of the book. I caught it reflexively and turned it over. It was a statement of delivery with what looked to be the name of a secondhand bookstore and address stamped on it. The address was in Tokyo and the book cost 40,000 yen. It was fairly expensive, but still wasn’t worth hundreds of thousands of yen.
“There’s no doubt that he ordered this through the mail.”
Shinokawa took Swine and Roses and added it to one of the piles of books. That was most likely the pile of books that “needed to be appraised individually.”
“Are there a lot of high priced books in this room?” I asked Shinokawa.
“Let’s see … as for whether there are a lot of them … that would depend on who purchases them as well as the condition of the books themselves. There do seem to be quite a few rare books here though.”
She pointed to one of the stacks of books. There were books on business etiquette, old English instruction books, and economic magazine back issues piled up.
“I can’t put a price on any of the books here, but there aren’t many people that collect books like these. That being said, it’s also unlikely that he was rereading these books … perhaps he was hesitant to throw away the books he owned. Maybe he was the type of person who valued his possessions …”
“You can understand a person’s personality just from the books they own?”
“I think they reflect a person’s character. Hobbies aside, there are people who can tell a person’s occupation and even their age just by looking at their book collection.”
Since it looked like she was talking about other people, I suppose Shinokawa herself couldn’t do it. So that meant there were people who had that much insight into books out there.
“Here, look at this please.” She pointed to one of the bookshelves that she hadn’t touched yet.
There were old volumes lined up on the shelves. There was Ariyoshi Sawakos’s The Doctor’s Wife and Homura as well as Inoue Yasushi’s Tonkou, Roof Tile of Tempyo, and Ruten.
“Both Ariyoshi Sawako and Inoue Yasushi have written many novels set in modern times, but not a single one of those is present here. The previous owner appears not to have had any interest in books that weren’t period dramas or otherwise related to history.”
“But what about Swine and Roses just now?”
“T-that was the exception. There was definitely something specific he was fixated on, which led him to purchase that.”
She pulled Ruten off the furthest end of the shelf as she spoke. It looked like the paper quality was bad to begin with, but now it was even worse. The pages must have gotten wet at some point and there was now a wavy pattern running all over it.
There was a price stuck in between the back cover and the endpaper. It cost 50,000 yen. It was received from the same store listed in the delivery statement for Swine and Roses.
“This book is also rare, but I can’t price it highly either. It would have been worth more if it were in better condition though.”
I looked down at the copy of Swine and Roses which she had casually set down earlier. That wasn’t really in good condition either, meaning it probably wasn’t worth much.
“He wasn’t picky about things like a book’s condition, was he?”
“Or perhaps he had a set maximum price he was willing to pay for a book …. At any rate, it appears that there aren’t any books that go above a specific amount.
If that were the case, then it would mean that the book worth hundreds of thousands of yen did not exist. Since it was just something Akiho’s older sister overheard, it might not have even been here in the first place.
“I knew it, something’s off,” Shinokawa muttered to herself as she closed the 50,000 yen Ruten.
“What is it?”
“This person frequently bought books from an antiquarian bookshop in Tokyo. Why didn’t he ask them to purchase the books from his collection? If he wanted his books properly taken care of, it would have made sense to place his trust in a store he already had a relationship with. I still can’t understand why he would go out of his way to choose our store.”
“Wasn’t it because Akiho told her father about our shop?”
That was also something I was uneasy about. Why did Akiho tell her father about Biblia? It’s not like she had visited our store before.
“It would be unnatural for someone who owned rare books to sell their cherished collection to a store that they had no relation to.”
I thought back to that old man’s expression. He certainly didn’t look like someone who would decide something so important just based on what his daughter said.
“There’s something more to this purchase request.”
As she said that, the door opened.
“I’m sorry, I kept you waiting.” Akiho came into view.
“I searched, but couldn’t find an actual memo pad … would these work instead?”
As she said that, she held out a stack of insert flyers that had been pulled from a newspaper. My grandfather used write on flyers like these too, but it was surprising to see that people living in such a large house were frugal about such insignificant things.
Maybe he was the type of person who valued his possessions.
Shinokawa’s words came back to me. What if—
“Did you bring these out from your father’s room?”
“Eh? Yes, I guess this was a habit of his. He was someone who hated treating his things carelessly. How did you know?”
“Well…just a guess.”
She really was able to discern his personality from the books that he owned.
“Thank you very much. You’ve been a great help.”
Shinokawa timidly accepted the makeshift memo pad.
“Um…if it’s alright, shall I take care of your coats? This room is really dusty so …. I can take yours too, Daisuke.”
Speaking of which, Shinokawa still had her coat on. I had just tossed mine on the floor a while ago. It didn’t cost much, so it was alright of a little dust got on it. I’d just wipe it off later anyway.
“I’m fine but …”
“I’m also alright and umm … I appreciate you asking.” Shinokawa’s words were smoother than they were before.
“Your father was the one who chose our store, right?”
“That’s right,” Akiho responded, without any trace of distrust.
“He wrote down instructions on how to manage the books and entrusted those instructions me. To be honest, it was rather surprising. Last month, when we were talking about Biblia Books, he mentioned that he had never actually gone inside the store.”
“How did you end up talking about our store in the first place?” I interjected.
Akiho scratched the outer corner of her eye with a troubled expression. “Ah…well…”
She kept shooting fleeting glances at me. Just what could it be?
Akiho turned to face Shinokawa and replied,
“About a month ago, I returned to this house after being away for a long time. I didn’t plan on staying long and only dropped by since I happened to be in the area. My father and I were chatting in the living room when he suddenly asked me ‘How’s that big guy who brought you back home a long time ago doing?’”
The accent Akiho used to impersonate her father’s speech was unmistakable.
“Eh? Your father was originally from the Kansai area?” Shinokawa’s eyes went wide.
Did that matter somehow?
Akiho gave a confused nod. “Yeah. He was born in Osaka, but moved here when he was young.”
“Why did a conversation about me come up?”
That’s what I didn’t understand. He only saw my face once four years ago, how the hell did he still remember me?
“I don’t really know either. Maybe he was curious about whether or not his daughter had someone she could marry. He made a sullen face when I told him that we had broken up a long time ago.”
With a composed expression, Akiho smoothly revealed our past relationship. Shinokawa already knew about it, so it was probably alright—in fact, doing it this way was better than clumsily trying to hide it.
“So I told him what I knew, that you were going out with the owner of an antiquarian bookshop in Kita-Kamakura. And that you took over the shop and were running it alone since she was hospitalized…”
“Wait a second. How did the story get twisted into that?”
I hurriedly interrupted her. Shinokawa looked dumbfounded. I wasn’t dating her, I was only looking after the shop. In the first place, she had already been discharged from the hospital last month.
“That’s what I heard from Sawamoto, you see. But it looks like he was going off of rumors.”
“That idiot.” I clicked my tongue.
He should have called me before spreading rumors like that.
“I’m really, truly sorry.” The apology was aimed at Shinokawa.
“N-no, same here….I’m sorry.”
Akiho lowered her head towards me as well, but there wasn’t really any need for her to apologize.
“So, about your father…”
We were turning back to the previous topic. It seemed Shinokawa was still curious about a few things.
“Did he say anything about our shop?”
After a brief silence, Akiho shook her head from side to side.
“After I told him what I knew, he said something about how it must be tough managing a store alone. But then he used that to start lecturing me and it ended up turning into an argument.”
“It happened all the time. Father apparently didn’t want me to run into hardships at work. ‘Find a good husband and build a family’ was one of the things he frequently said.”
In this day and age, such an old fashioned—no, in the first place, such ways of thinking were normal for people from his era.
“I thought he was being blind to his own faults. In the end, I told him that I absolutely would not quit my job and would continue to do what I wanted. It wasn’t the first time we had an argument like that.”
Akiho smiled bitterly. The reason she started living alone so suddenly was probably because of falling outs like this. I suppose she and her father were close to breaking off all ties with each other by the time they had this argument.
“My father also went through hardships because of work when he was younger, so I understand what he wanted to say. But as far as his life experiences go, well, it’s a long story.”
“Did your father always work in the food service industry?” Shinokawa asked.
Come to think of it, I did hear that he managed a restaurant chain.
“No, he apparently worked various jobs before he moved here. He made rubber boots at a factory, worked as a receptionist at an art gallery while he studied for his certifications, and played piano accompaniment for chanson singers at cabaret clubs, for example.”
He was an unexpectedly multi-talented person. I glanced at the side of Shinokawa’s face. There had to be a reason behind these questions. I was uneasy about the brooding expression she had on.
“Thank you very much and … I’m very sorry for asking you such prying questions.”
“I don’t mind at all. There aren’t many people who come to ask me about memories of my father.”
It was only for a moment, but Akiho’s voice sounded low-spirited. In order to shake that off, she put her hand on her hip and surveyed the library around her.
“Is it alright if I don’t help? There isn’t much else I could do.”
“It’s quite alright. Thank you for bringing the memo pad.”
I wordlessly looked back at Akiho as she left the room with a smile. If I had asked her more about her parents in the past, would she have opened up to me? If we had still been going out, would she have told me about her father?
Suddenly, there was a sigh. However, it wasn’t from me.
Shinokawa was deep in thought with an unusually serious expression.
“…it feels like I’m overlooking something very important here.” She placed a finger on her chin.
“I’m close to figuring it out … but there’s still something missing.”
Although Shinokawa was close to figuring out “something important”, she quickly finished up her work first. The books filling the room were sorted in one go, and the items that could be evaluated had tags with written prices affixed to them. The books that couldn’t be appraised were all stored in an empty cardboard box. I don’t think even an hour passed between when she started writing in the memo pad and when she finished calculating the total. It was an impressive speed, but the worker herself seemed disappointed.
“I had a harder time than I thought I would.”
Since the home purchasing program involved going to many different houses, being able to work quickly and accurately at the same time was essential.
Shinokawa called for Akiho and presented her with the memo pad that had the purchasing price written on it. I thought it was a fair price since the library did contain some rare books, even if they weren’t all in good condition.
However, if the book that was worth hundreds of thousands of yen had been included in this, it would have been would have been an unfair asking price. Shinokawa briefly explained how much each book was going for. She wasn’t particularly skilled, but she was getting used to giving easy to understand explanations. Akiho nodded and listened until the end.
“What should I do with these unappraised books?”
Akiho said, with a complicated look on her face as she accepted the payment. There was still a large cardboard box filled to the brim with left over books. At the top of the box rested a magazine titled “Japan’s economic boom will continue into the 21st century,” followed by several other business related texts. They would serve absolutely no use in this day and age.
“Did your father leave any instructions about these?”
“Let’s see…if I remember correctly, he said: ‘Take all of the books that the Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia does not purchase and dispose of them.’ Come to think of it…all I have to do is get rid of them, right? Recyclable trash can’t be taken out until tomorrow… but whatever, I have a car.”
“Can’t you stay the night and take everything out tomorrow?”
“Barring any unforeseen circumstances, I’m not planning on staying the night here. There’s someone else I don’t want to see even more than Mitsuyo, so I’m going back to work tomorrow.”
“Why can’t you ask your sister to take it out tomorrow?”
“I kinda can’t do that either.” Akiho shook her head.
“The rule in this house is that once father asks you to do something, it’s your responsibility until the very end.”
Ultimately, I thought the reason she didn’t ask her sister wasn’t because of any rule, but rather because Akiho herself didn’t want to. This was the final task her father had entrusted to her, after all.
“Why don’t you bring them to a larger bookshop and have them take a look at the books?”” Shinokawa asked.
“Since the way they appraise books is different, you might even get some money for the ones we weren’t able to appraise today. In any case, even if they don’t buy the books, you could still give them away for free.”
The room lapsed into silence. Mitsuyo had stopped her piano performance without any of us even noticing. She must have gotten tired of playing. However, that had nothing to do with what was happening now.
“Alright, I’ll try doing that.”
Shinokawa and I were each tying about a dozen books together. To keep the books in place, we wrapped each stack once around the front using a single vinyl cord. The spines of the books were neatly arranged to face the same direction.
I learned this after I started working here, but when transporting old books, it was more common to tie them together rather than putting them in a cardboard box. If you packed them into a box, then you would have to open every single one in order to ascertain their contents. If you just tied them together, however, you could tell the right title just by looking at the spine.
Only large books were tied using two pieces of cord crossed one over the other; tankoubon sized books were normally bound with a single cord. There was a trick to binding books with only one cord; if you tie it too loose, the cord will come apart, if you tighten it too much, there will be marks left on both sides of the book where the cord touched.
“This book is expensive, so please insert a piece of paper between the cord and the book in order to protect it,” Shinokawa instructed.
Shinokawa had a thoughtful expression on her face as she continued her work. It was strange seeing her so deep in thought. Normally she unraveled the mysteries surrounding books right then and there. I searched for something that I could use as a paper buffer for the books, and my eyes fell to the bundle of leaflets that were being used as a memo pad. I borrowed a couple and was carefully tying up the books when Akiho returned to the library.
She was wearing a moss green coat and a knitted hat. It looked like she had already delivered the payment to her sister, Mitsuyo, and was finished preparing for her return home.
“Excuse me, I’m leaving first.”
Shinokawa stood up from the wooden stepstool she was sitting in and lowered her head. I tentatively did the same.
“Thank you sincerely for allowing us to purchase these precious books.”
“No, no, the pleasure is mine. Well, I’ll go ahead and take the unappraised books then.”
She said that in a lively tone and took the large cardboard box in her arms. I suppose she was going to take it to a secondhand bookstore from here.
“Which store are you going to?”
“There should be a store in Tebiro, that one.”
Come to think of it, I did remember seeing a sign for a used bookstore chain near Tebiro crossing.
“Can you carry that box all the way to the car?”
“It’s fine, it’s fine, I’m used to manual labor.”
She easily pick up the box filled with books as she said that
“And Daisuke, the next time you and Sawamoto go drinking, invite me too.”
It felt like there was something I should say, but whatever that was, it also probably wasn’t what Akiho wanted to hear.
“Thank you. Shop owner…excuse me.”
Shinokawa called out to stop her. Akiho, who had been outside the door, turned around, box and all.
“Was Shiba Ryoutarou your father’s favorite author?”
“Yeah, he was.” Akiho smiled.
“He used to say that his books were something like a charm for business prosperity. He would always turn to reading whenever he was worried about work. Yeah, pros like us know how that goes.”
With that, Akiho left, her footsteps fading into the distance. I closed the open library door and turned towards the real “pro”.
“How did you know?”
Shinokawa sat back down on the stool, took two volumes off the mountain of old books and showed them to me.
One was Swine and Roses and the other was On the Highways. Both of them were written by Shiba Ryoutarou.
“Shiba Ryoutarou only wrote Modern day stories and essay collections…so I guessed that Akiho’s father was particularly fond of him. “
She put the two volumes back and continued tying stacks of books together. She had probably asked Akiho the question about Shiba Ryoutaro because it was somehow related to the mystery of why Akiho’s father had chosen our store to buy his books.
Just as I crouched down to get back to work,
“…Maybe they came from the same hometown,” Shinokawa unexpectedly muttered.
“Hm? What do you mean?”
“Kousaka’s father and Shiba Ryoutarou. If that were the case, then it wouldn’t be so strange for him to hold a particular interest in that author.”
It seemed that there was more to this conversation after all. I stopped what I was doing.
“Was Shiba Ryoutarou from Kyoto?”
“Yes. He had risen to the position of vice president at the Sankei Shimbun headquarters in Osaka when he made his debut. In 1956, The Magician of Persia, a novel he wrote over the course of two nights was chosen for an award, if I remember correctly…”
The conversation paused just as it was getting interesting. She put a finger to her temple, looking as if she was trying to drag out a memory.
“…there’s definitely still something I’m overlooking. I’m sorry, let’s continue this conversation another time.”
“Ah, OK.” We were working anyway. Now wasn’t the time to be talking about books.
Shinokawa and I continued our work. Halfway through, we decided to split the labor. Shinokawa tied the books up and I carried them to the van.
After several trips back and forth, the piles of books started to slowly disappear from the library.
The first unusual event happened about 20 minutes into the work. I was picking up a bundle of books containing the complete collection of Yamada Fuutarou’s Ninja Stories when I noticed a small piece of paper on the floor.
It was probably one of the memo papers that Akiho brought. It must have flipped over when it fell. There was some text written in faint letters on it.
“I’m looking for….Ivy Bridge of Kiso”
I gulped. I had seen this before—it was from an inventory request that was faxed into the store last month. The request basically stated that someone was looking for the complete collection of Kunieda Shirou’s Ivy Bridge of Kiso.
“Look at this, please.”
I picked up the scrap of fax paper and handed it to Shinokawa. She also understood what it meant in an instant.
“Did the man who was looking for this book have a Kansai accent?”
I nodded, there was no mistake. The one who had sent the fax back then was Akiho’s father.
He had learned about the Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia from Akiho, and must have looked us up in the phone book in order to contact us. After that, he reused the copy of the fax as scratch paper.
“Even so, it’s strange. Why did he still request that we buy his books”?
At that time, I couldn’t even read the title of the book he was looking for. He laughed and called me an amateur. Why would he entrust his precious library with a shop that employed amateurs like me?
“I’m also curious about that but…”
Shinokawa indicated the bundle of books she was holding up.
“He seems to have had a good amount of romantic novels as well.”
The bundle contained several books written by Kunieda Shirou. Seeing as how the books were covered in a thin layer of dust, they must have been purchased quite a long time ago.
There was also the The Demon of Yatsugatake and Shinshu Kokechi Jo, which was another title that I couldn’t understand. Right next to them was the complete collection of Kunieda Shirou’s Ivy Bridge of Kiso. It was identical to the one that we had at the shop.
I was getting more and more confused. Did this mean he sent in a request looking for a book that he already owned? Why on earth would he do that?
Shinokawa suddenly let out a loud, startled cry next to me.
“W-what is it?”
“Do you know Kousaka’s cellphone number? If we don’t get in contact with her right away…!!”
She kicked away her stool and dragged her feet with some difficulty to approach me. It looked like something huge had occurred.
“Akiho’s cell number? Yeah, I should…”
I remembered as I moved to take my phone out of my pocket.
“….that’s right, I never did get her cell number.”
When we met at the bar, she only gave me the phone number for this house. I had deleted her cell number from my phone a long time ago.
“What is the matter?” The elder sister, Mitsuyo entered through the library door which had been left open.
“Excuse me, I heard an extremely loud voice and came running over.”
I didn’t think it was loud enough to warrant running over, maybe she really did have good ears.
“Do you by any chance know Kousaka’s cell phone number?” Shinokawa asked with clear enunciation, completely different from before. Perhaps not understanding, Akiho’s older sister narrowed her eyes
“Well…I do have the phone number for her apartment but…”
Shinokawa decided what to do next in an instant.
“I’m very sorry, we will need to excuse ourselves for some time. We will return afterwards to pick up the remaining books. Goura, we need to go.”
Before I could ask where we were going, she had already gotten her cane and left the library. I nodded at Akiho’s sister and hurriedly followed after Shinokawa.
“We’re going to the bookstore in Tebiro.” Shinokawa said as I followed her down the hallway.
“We need to stop Kousaka before she gets rid of of those books.”
“I should have noticed it so much sooner.”
We were in the van leaving the Kousaka estate. Shinokawa spoke regretfully.
“That inquiry last month was a test.”
“It was a test to see how informed the employees at Biblia were about antiquarian books. Since you passed that test, he requested that our store purchase the books from his personal library.”
“Huh? But I wasn’t well informed at all.”
“That’s right. What Kousaka’s father was looking for was someone who didn’t have much experience. He planned to have you come alone to purchase the books from the very beginning. I think he wanted the request to be fulfilled immediately after the funeral in order to have it wrapped up before I got out of the hospital.”
Come to think of it, the person who called did ask me if I was the only person in the store at the time.
Akiho had passed on Sawamoto’s irresponsible gossip to her father without knowing that Shinokawa had already been discharged from the hospital. That question was probably to check if it was really true that I was the only person managing the Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia at the time.
“But why would he do something like that…?”
“Try to remember what the instructions that were given to Akiho said. The assessment would be carried out on site, and we were to take the books after they were appraised. The books that couldn’t be appraised would be left behind. However, those books would definitely need to be taken out of the estate…if the instructions were strictly followed, what do you think would happen?”
I thought while gripping the steering wheel. The van went up a gentle hill in Hase and was exiting a tunnel covered with autumn colored leaves.
“Akiho would have had to take the books we couldn’t appraise.”
She did say something about taking the large cardboard box filled with books home. Had it not been for Shinokawa’s advice, she really would have done just that.
“There would have been no helping that an amateur would make a mistake. There was a high chance that you would overlook the book without really understanding its true value. Kousaka’s father was working to have that specific book fall into his daughter’s hands.”
In other words, it was something like an elaborate present.
“So does that mean that this is the book that was supposed to be worth hundreds of thousands of yen?”
“Correct…although it’s hard to say if it would be worth quite that much now. Had it been in better condition, it would have easily been worth much more than a hundred thousand yen.”
“Then instead of resorting to this roundabout method, wouldn’t it have been better if he had just passed it on to her normally? In fact, they even met each other in person last month.”
“Perhaps there was the possibility that someone would have overheard their conversation? In the unlikely chance that it got out that Akiho received a rare book from her father, her other relatives would…”
I thought back to the woman in the kimono—Akiho’s older half-sister who said herself that she “had good ears.” Akiho did not get along with her relatives and would probably become the target of their animosity since this was a problem involving money.
“There might be other reasons as well…but either way, it was something I also overlooked. I put it amongst the books that looked like they couldn’t be priced. I noticed it for a moment, but couldn’t quite remember…. I still have a long way to go.”
She tightly pressed her lips together. It was the first time I had ever seen her make such a frustrated expression. She also had that side to her, I suppose.
The van passed under a monorail overpass. We were almost at our destination, but if Akiho had already sold the books, it would be difficult to get them back. Whether or not we could make it depended on how lucky we were.
“…but Akiho’s father deliberately hid it to make it difficult to find, didn’t he?”
I spoke without taking my eyes off the road. I was thinking of my grandmother, Goura Kinuko, who had hidden a secret she could absolutely not utter to anybody within her copy of Souseki’s Complete Collection.
“It’s not that you were inexperienced. From the very beginning, this was something he wanted to keep hidden—it was never meant to be discovered so easily.”
Silence hung inside the van. I felt a strong gaze at the side of my head and briefly turned to face the passenger seat. Her eyes had gone wide and she was starting to tear up a little. Shinokawa stared at me. It looked like she had somehow been moved by my words. It hadn’t been my intention to say anything strange though.
She was looking at me so much that I couldn’t calm down, it was extremely embarrassing. I loudly cleared my throat.
“So which book was it?”
The bookstore sign came into view in front of us. I slowed down the van.
“The truth is, in that box….”
Just as Shinokawa started to talk, a convenience store in the parallel to the road caught my eye. There was a woman wearing a familiar moss green coat walking out of the store. It looked like she had just bought a drink, and was closing her plastic bottle as she walked to her car.
Fortunately, there were no cars immediately behind us, and all the cars in the opposite lane were far away. I flashed my turn signal and made a hard turn into the convenience store parking lot. I cut the engine and sprinted out of the car.
Akiho was about to get into what looked like a secondhand red kei car.
I yelled as loud as I could.
Her eyes went wide.
“Daisuke…and the store owner. What’s going on?”
“Did you already go to the bookstore?
“Huh? Yeah, I just got back from it. I was thinking about going back to Tokyo from here.”
We got here as fast as we could, but it looked like we were too late. I powerlessly placed my hand on the roof of the car. If we had come even five minutes earlier——
I looked through the window at the passenger seat. There was a large half-open cardboard box placed in it. Inside the box were stacks of old, tightly packed books.
“What are those books doing there?”
“Oh, those.” Akiho lightly shrugged.
“I carried them over to the store once, but I had a change of heart. Despite everything, these books are my father’s mementos…it’s alright if I keep them in my room for a while.”
I unintentionally breathed a sigh of relief. Perhaps Akiho’s father had even expected that his daughter would do something like this. That she wouldn’t be able to dispose of the books so easily once she took possession of them.
“Excuse me, but would it be alright if I looked through the contents of the box one more time?”
Having gotten out of the van, Shinokawa spoke up.
“I don’t mind…but what’s going on?” Akiho replied.
Shinokawa lowered the box onto the parking lot black top and sat in the passenger seat of the car. As she checked the contents of the box, I explained the situation to Akiho. I told her that there was a valuable book that was supposed to have been handed down to her somewhere inside that box. We came all the way down here to stop her from selling it to the store.
“…but it’s a little hard to believe that he would go so far just to make sure I got this expensive book.” Akiho had a dubious expression on her face.
“You said he didn’t say anything when you talked to him last month…. If what you’re telling me is really true, wouldn’t he have given you at least a hint at what he was planning?”
I thought that was strange as well. If he had wanted to tell me something, he could’ve found a way. It might have just been his personality.
“Some people don’t like to talk a lot about what they’re thinking, I guess.”
Akiho’s expression clouded. “I also used to be that way.”
“No, I didn’t mean it like that, sorry.”
“It’s not something you need to apologize for.”
“…Um, here it is.”
At Shinokawa’s words, we gathered around the cardboard box. She pointed to a thin book. The book itself looked like it hand been lovingly read and was considerably old. The orange and black cover had faded, and the corners of book were all damaged.
The title was Essay of Wise Sayings – Salaryman. Its subtitle was “Humorous Analects” and the author was Fukuda Sadaichi— it was a name that I had never heard before.
“Is this really it?” I was somewhat let down.
As far as I could see from the cover, it was meant as reading material for salarymen. You wouldn’t have thought it was a particularly valuable book.
“Yes, there’s no doubt. This is the book that Kousaka’s father wanted to pass on to her,” Shinokawa said confidently.
Akiho didn’t try to reach out for the book, so I took it from Shinokawa instead and quickly looked through it. As the title suggested, it looked to be a collection of wise sayings from all times and places written in an essay style
Some of the wise sayings were from Tokugawa Ieyasu’s dying instructions. Others were quotes from works by Goethe, as well as remarks by foreign statesmen. To be frank, there really wasn’t any sense of unity.
I turned to the preface at the beginning of the book, and took a look at what was written there:
Although I call this book The Salaryman Analects, I would not be so audacious as to say that these Showa era sayings could be seen as a challenge to Confucius. The difference between Confucius and this lowborn salarymen is like that of the stars in the sky to the worms in the earth.
Considering he was writing a book, it’s unlikely he thought so lowly of himself. It did seem like the author was a normal salaryman though.
“Why is this a rare book?” I still didn’t understand the reason why it would be worth so much.
“Fukuda Sadaichi was Shiba Ryoutarou’s real name. “
Shinokawa continued to talk in spite of our unintentional exclamations.
“This was published in 1955, a year before he made his debut as a novelist. At that time, he was still working at a newspaper company and certainly was a salaryman. Like Swine and Roses, this book also never made it into Shiba Ryoutarou’s complete works anthology.”
I suddenly began to see the thin book in a completely different light.
This person, who called himself a lowborn salaryman, had become a famed writer whose works were read by countless people, even after his death. At that time, not even Shiba Ryoutarou himself would have imagined that he would gain this level of success.
“Perhaps the author did not consider this a work he could be satisfied with. Regardless, it seems this book was read by many people. There were additional printings soon after its release, and it was reprinted two more times under a different title.”
Shinokawa smoothly explained everything she knew about the book. It looked like she was back to her usual self.
“Shiba Ryoutarou didn’t really write about his own life in his works, but this book contains 20 or so stories about his personal experiences written in essay style. In the early postwar period, the demobilized Fukuda Sadaichi flitted between newspaper companies and encountered various hardships. It was something that readers of the time could relate to. Kousaka’s father was one of those people.
Akiho took the Essay of Wise Sayings and examined it closely.
“You can tell Dad lovingly read this book just by looking at it.”
Akiho muttered as if she were remembering something bit by bit.
“When I had just left the house in Kamakura all those years ago, I didn’t talk to my father often. He would sometimes look up from his books, but as always, he never said anything….but why did he give this book to me…?
Shinokawa reached out and turned over the front cover. On the endpaper were letters written with a practiced hand—Fukuda Sadaichi.
“It was an autographed book…?” I murmured.
To think that this book was signed on top of how valuable it already was. We were talking about it being worth 2 or 3 hundred thousand yen, but it was far more valuable than that.
“Not even I can say whether or not this is the real thing with complete certainty. This is the first time I’ve seen an autograph under his real name. Assuming that it is real, and that he signed it after becoming an author, I’m curious about why he didn’t use his pen name. Perhaps he was asked to sign the book before he started using the pen name — or at least before he started using it publicly.
I thought about it for a moment. If that were the case…
“Then does this mean that Akiho’s father knew Shiba Ryoutarou before he made his debut?”
“That’s what I believe. You said that your father once worked as a receptionist at an art gallery, correct?”
Akiho nodded wordlessly in answer to Shinokawa’s question
“Shiba Ryoutarou….the reporter, Fukuda Sadaichi, worked for the culture department at Sankei Shinbun. It would have only been natural for him to be in and out museums and art galleries to write abound trends in the world of arts. It’s possible that they knew each other by sight.”
I was struck dumb. It felt like the story had come together in an unbelievable way.
Shinokawa pressed the Essay of Wise Sayings into Akiho’s hands.
“Your father once said that Shiba Ryoutarou’s books were like a protective charm, didn’t he?
Shiba Ryoutarou was someone from the same town who went from being a mere salaryman to a great author. To your father who went through hardships because of work, it was perhaps literally a protective charm. He wanted this book to be a charm for you next, I think it was something like that.”
“….even though he was always opposed to me working….” Akiho’s voice was shaking a little.
“And isn’t that the very reason he thought you would need this charm?”
Shinokawa took out a folded piece of paper, and put it in Akiho’s hand.
“This fell out in the box. I think it was slipped in between the pages of that book.”
It was a small letter. While still holding the book, Akiho slowly opened the note.
The letter only had her name; nothing else was written on it.
I whispered the question and Shinokawa nodded. The writing was even fainter than on the fax that he had sent our shop before, and the handwriting was like twisted thread. He must not have had any strength left to write the body of the letter.
Akiho respectfully folded the letter and slipped it back into the book.
“I…never got along with my father.”
Akiho muttered as she looked up at the cloudless autumn sky,
“I was arrogant, cold, and hard to approach. Even when we saw each other…. I never knew what to say. We always said the same things to each other, and it always ended up as an argument. I’m sure Dad didn’t know how to reach me either. We sure do resemble each other. “
Akiho then lightly smiled and turned to Shinokawa.
“Do you know the real reason why hr would go through all these lengths in order to pass this book down to me?”
“I do not.” After thinking for a while, Shinokawa shook her head no.
“What did he want to tell me, was it really alright to pass this book on to me? He never could express his feelings well…just like this letter…”
Suddenly, clear drops began to overflow from Akiho’s eye and stream down her face.
That was the first time I had ever seen her cry.
Shinokawa sat with her back straight in the van’s passenger seat. She was making an effort not to look at us, probably out of consideration.
“Not only is she cute, she’s also a good person,” Akiho said.
She and I were the only ones in the convenience store parking lot. Akiho said that she wanted to talk with me alone for a little bit, so Shinokawa returned to the car without me.
“Even though she originally came to the house to purchase books, she never asked me to sell this one to her, even though it’s so rare.”
Akiho held the copy of the Essay of Wise Sayings that her father had entrusted to her in her hand. I scratched my head.
“She has her own problems too, despite what it looks like.”
“You’ve always liked girls like that though.”
“What are you talking about?”
I had a feeling that Akiho was talking about herself.
“Do you remember when the two of us first got close? During the summer of our second year in high school?
I was slightly confused, but nodded. I wondered what she wanted to talk about all of a sudden.
“We planned to do our summer homework together and always met up at the library. Sawamoto was busy with club activities and going on dates, so he couldn’t come. Which left the two of us…”
“I knew it, you never noticed. That was on purpose.”
“I deliberately planned to meet on days when Sawamoto couldn’t come. The fact that we ended up alone with each other wasn’t an accident. I think he must have suspected something.”
Akiho nonchalantly continued talking. Her tears had already dried on her face.
“I had always liked you since our first year in high school. My heart would pound just from having our shoulders touch when we passed each other or getting to sit near you when our seats were rearranged. I hoped that you would noticed my feelings one day…you never noticed at all though”
“I-I see…” My words came out haltingly.
I certainly never noticed it. Should I thank her for thinking about me that way, or should I apologize for never noticing her feelings? What was I supposed to do here?
“But after that event happened, I stopped waiting. If I didn’t start becoming more proactive, I would have stood no chance at all. You would have ended up with someone else.”
“Event? What happened?
Like many high school boys, I didn’t have much romance to speak of. I don’t think I got along with any girls besides Akiho.
“Daisuke, do you remember when you forgot your textbook at school and had to go back to pick it up on a Sunday? This was before our second summer of high school. Don’t you remember what happened on your way back home?”
I finally understood what she was talking about. I happened to see Shinokawa in front of Biblia Books. I’m pretty sure I went back home without starting up a conversation with her, but got the feeling that I told Sawamoto and the others about it at school the next day. Akiho was probably asking about that.
“Sawamoto and the others got really riled up and insisted that you talk to her one more time. You didn’t look like you had that kind of courage, but I felt like I was about to faint…it somehow felt like a bad omen. Like I would definitely lose you if you ended up getting along with her. I gradually became friends with you and worked to closen the gap between us so that there would be rumors…all of that was planned by me.”
I was surprised, but at the same time, it made sense. That was the reason why Akiho was so calm when those rumors started to come up.
“My wish came true and we started dating, but there was something I realized. I couldn’t talk to you at all about myself, about my parents, or about my rocky relationship with my parents. I couldn’t open my heart to others about my own problems….just like my father.”
Akiho snorted in self-deprecation. Her laugh resembled her father’s, which I remembered from when he had called the store last month.
“In the end, I strung you along, and we wound up breaking it off….I really thought we’d never see each other again. It was enough to make me want to disappear. I couldn’t forgive myself. That’s why, when I heard from Sawamoto that you were seeing Shinokawa, I was relieved from the bottom of my heart. It felt like the time that had stopped because of my selfishness had begun to move again.”
Just then, my eyes met Shinokawa’s, who happened to look up. Perhaps she was worried about the time. Some of the books we purchased had been left behind at the Kousaka estate, and we couldn’t leave those alone for too long.
“What I want to say is, I hope you find happiness. It would be nice if you could think of our past relationship as just another point in your life….because I’m truly praying that everything goes well with you and the person you love. That’s all I wanted to say, see ya!”
After finally letting everything out, Akiho briskly walked off in the direction of her car.
Her back looked ready to reject anything I had to say. Since there was nothing else I could do, I also returned to the van.
There was something smoldering in my chest. I had lost the chance to put it into words, but it was a feeling I had had since long ago.
I turned my head right as I opened the driver side door. All feelings will eventually fade away and disappear if they are left alone. If I didn’t say this now, I didn’t think I’d ever get another chance.
Akiho, who was about to get into her own car, raised her head.
“I didn’t understand what you were thinking back then…..but even if I didn’t understand you, I still wanted to be with you.”
I raised my voice to give this a sense of finality.
“But I loved you, I really did.”
Akiho stood there dumbfounded. Of course, I had no idea what she was thinking about in that moment. At length, she flashed her white teeth and smiled.
“See ya later, Daisuke.” She replied spiritedly.
We bade each other farewell and went back to our own cars. Although she said “later”, I had a feeling that we wouldn’t be seeing each other again.
After I watched Akiho leave the parking lot, I suddenly came back to my senses. Shinokawa’s mouth was hanging open. Her entire face was bright red, and she looked like she was about to boil over. Come to think of it, I ended up shouting “I loved you” after opening the door.
“I’m sorry….I overheard that.”
“Ah, no same here. I said some strange things to Akiho even though we’re no longer together…”
It seemed like the more I tried to explain, the deeper I’d be digging myself into a grave. We took the road back to the Kousaka estate with an unbearable atmosphere hanging in the air.
We didn’t talk any more than he had to after that and moving the books back to the van went without a hitch. The only time I stopped working was when Akiho’s older sister called out to me in the hallway.
“I do not know where you went, but please hurry and take everything out.”
I lowered my head while carrying three bundles of books. Then, I caught sight of the special money envelope she had in her hand. Kousaka Akiho was listed in the recipient column in neat handwriting.
“I need to take this to the post office by today. Please finish up so I can make it in time.”
I wondered why she was sending money to Akiho. Moreover, why it needed to be sent today. I couldn’t just ask about it as a complete stranger, but I was still curious.
“Are you wondering about this?”
Perhaps I was too obvious about what I was looking at. She raised her hand and held the envelope out towards me to make it easier to see.
“This is the money from the books that were sold today. I’m sending it over to Akiho. I tried to give it to her earlier, but she stubbornly refused to accept it. Really, she’s always causing me trouble.”
She quickly clicked her tongue, displaying a snaggletooth. It was the first time in my life I had ever seen someone click their tongue without losing any elegance.
“You were planning on giving the money from the books to her?”
“I wouldn’t bother being stingy about a trivial amount like this…although there are some of our relatives who would probably be too tightfisted to even give Akiho this much.”
I changed my opinion of Akiho’s sister, Mitsuyo. I thought that she and Akiho just didn’t get along, but it looked like things weren’t as simple as that. Like her father, she probably didn’t talk much about her feelings due to her personality.
“Goura Daisuke, please convey this to Akiho as well so that she doesn’t return this money. Sending it back to her again would be troublesome, you see.”
That’s when I tilted my head. Mitsuyo was talking as if it were a given that Akiho and I had a close relationship. Had Akiho told even her sister about us?
“Did you, by any chance, know about me?”
“What? Of course I did.” She knit her eyebrows in utter amazement.
“You took Akiho back home a long time ago and loudly introduced yourself saying, ‘My name is Goura Daisuke.’”
Then she added one more thing.
“I have good ears, you know.”
Nonetheless, I didn’t think my voice had reached the inside of the estate back then, which meant that Mitsuyo most likely would have been in the room facing out to the garden. Was she worried about her father standing on the stepping stones outside, or was she waiting for her half-sister who was young enough to be her daughter?
Only Mitsuyo herself knew the true reason.
As we turned on to the intersection in front of Tsurugaoka Hachimangū and continued onto the uphill prefectural road, the van began to slow down due to the weight of the books piled in back.
We had already finished our work and were currently en route back to the Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia. The tops of the ginkgo trees gently glowed as they bathed in the light of the setting autumn sun.
“Let’s arrange the books tomorrow…after we return to the store and finish up for today.”
Shinokawa spoke so quietly I almost couldn’t hear her. This was the first thing she had said since we started driving. I was still in the process of calming down, but it looked like she hadn’t yet. As always, her face was red and she wasn’t talking much.
“Daisuke…make sure to get a good rest after we get back – tomorrow’s going to be busy.”
“Yes, of course….huh?”
I turned my head after answering. Daisuke? I looked over to the passenger’s seat and saw her covering her mouth with both hands.
“S-sorry. Kousaka was always calling you that so I accidentally…it looks like it rubbed off on me.”
“I don’t mind if you call me Daisuke.”
Being called that simply made me happy. It felt like we had gotten closer.
“Alright, I will.” She readily agreed.
She softly repeated the word to herself as if trying to imprint its sound in her memory.
Come to think of it, this is what she meant when she said she wanted to try calling a guy by their first name.
“Then can I also call you Shioriko?”
I wanted to bring it up casually, but wasn’t sure it came across that way. At any rate, there was no reply. It was troubling that she didn’t say anything – not even a refusal.
The van went under a rockslide prevention arch and then down a hill. I cautiously looked at the side of her face. Her eyebrows were scrunched together and she had her eyes closed tightly. Rather than looking angry, it looked like she was enduring pain. Moreover, her breath was erratic.
We were stopped at the traffic light in front of Kenchou Temple.
She opened her eyes a little bit behind her glasses and responded in a weak voice.
With that, I understood. I leaned over and put my hand on her forehead. Sure enough, she had a high fever.
“Your cold hand….feels nice…”
She slurred again as a faint smile appeared on her face.
I had thought there was something odd about Shioriko. Her complexion was unusually good and she hadn’t take off her coat, even after we went inside. She was also having a harder time than usual solving the book’s mystery. There really wasn’t much else to it. This happened because she had overexerted herself while she wasn’t feeling well.
I should have noticed it sooner.
The light turned green and I slammed on the accelerator.
(Incidentally, I began using Shinokawa’s given name during this confusion, so I’ll call her Shioriko from now on.)
The entrance to the main house was on the opposite side of the store.
I parked in the parking space and went around the van to open the passenger seat door from the outside. Shioriko took off her seatbelt with shaky hands and tried to use her cane to step out of the car. I watched with bated breath as the tip of her cane smoothly hit the floor and she fell forward.
I reflexively reached out and managed to catch her before she hit the ground. The smell from her feverishly weak body made me feel lightheaded.
“I-it’s fine…..I can stand…”
I heard her faint voice. However, no matter how much I waited, Shioriko did not try to stand. She had completely run out of strength.
Looked like there was only one thing I could do here.
“Please hold on for a moment.”
I put my arms around her knees and back, and lifted her up. I lightly ran holding her up like that.
She had her arms wrapped tightly around herself.
“Not at all…it’s alright.”
To be honest, I couldn’t tell whether she was heavy or light because of my panic. I opened the door with the key I took out from her jacket pocket and was met with a dead silence inside the house. It looked like Shioriko’s younger sister, who lived with her, still hadn’t come back from school.
Shioriko moved around uncomfortably, making her shoes fall to the ground. I kicked mine off as well. Her bedroom was on the second floor. I went through the creaky hallway and looked up at the steep set of stairs. Things would be pretty bad in the off chance that she tumbled down.
“If possible, could you hold on tight?”
My voice was hoarse with tension.
I wondered whether or not to wait a little longer, but she obediently wrapped her arms around my back. Her ample chest pressed against me more than I imagined it would, but I carefully began climbing up the stairs anyway. I could feel both her body heat and her pulse. I forced myself to focus on where I was stepping.
I carried Shioriko up to her room on the second floor while being careful not to bump into any of the mountains of books. I laid her down on the bed near the window and she let out an agonized breath.
Shioriko’s fur-lined coat was buttoned up to the top. It would be better to at least take off that top layer of clothing. I hesitantly put my hand on the buttons and began unfastening them. Although, there was no helping it, I didn’t really want anyone to walk in on me doing this—
“What’re you doing?”
I heard a voice behind me. Startled, I turned around to see a ponytailed girl wearing a dark blue school blazer standing in the hallway with her arms crossed. This was Shioriko’s younger sister, Shinokawa Ayaka.
“Ah, well…we just got back from a home visit, but it looks like she has a fever.”
Before I could even finish my explanation, Ayaka rushed over to the bed, skillfully avoiding the mountains of books littered around the room.
“Ah—I knew it! Give me a minute, I’ll be right back!”
I was somehow able to avoid a misunderstanding. Ayaka ran out of the room and soon returned form downstairs with an ice pillow, towel, and a pitcher of water. After that, she took out some pajamas and underwear from the closet and tossed them onto the bed one after the other. I looked away from the underwear just in case.
“I even told you that home purchases were too much…here, open your mouth, Shioriko.”
Ayaka put the thermometer into her sister’s mouth while sighing. I only realized this recently, but it looked like the younger sister was the one who took charge of their household affairs. She was skilled at everything she did.
“Was her condition really that bad?”
“Mm, it was originally a light fever, but I think it got this bad because she had to teach you how to do the job and make preparations. She was up in the middle of the night writing various notes. Like how to greet customers and how to make purchase orders and stuff. “
In other words, she pushed herself too far for my sake. The reason she was so strangely clear today was so that I could learn how it was done.
So it was something like that, huh.
I felt ashamed.
I hadn’t noticed anything at all today. Not about Shioriko and not about Akiho.
“Well, at least it looks like she had fun. Shioriko, that is.”
Ayaka said as she took Shioriko’s arms out of her coat.
“Yeah. She was like an elementary school kid on the day before a field trip.”
Shioriko needed to be changed into her pajamas, so I left the room.
The books piled high in the hallway were illuminated by the lights on the ceiling. There were different types of books compared to the last time I came up here. Rather, the amount had increased a little. If things continued like this, Shioriko’s books would most likely overflow downstairs.
It was completely dark outside through the window. This had been a long day. Fortunately, Shioriko’s fever was nothing serious. I was still worried, but the plan was to return home if things continued like this.
My eyes finally fell on a stack of books against the wall as my gaze wandered around the hallway. There was the spine of a book I remembered seeing once at the top of the stack— Sakaguchi Michiyo’s Cra Cra Diary.
It had been in the discount wagon before. It was originally part of Shioriko’s personal collection, but her copies of the book ended up being taken out to the store since she couldn’t bring herself to like it.
I picked up the book without thinking and made sure. This was definitely the same book. This meant that she still owned this book even though she wasn’t fond of it.
I tilted my head and set the book back on the stack. By chance, I saw that part of a painting was poking out from behind the books. It was a white bird superimposed on a mountain of books. I also remembered seeing this painting.
I was told “Cra Cra” meant pigeon. I didn’t know if that was the same bird pictured here, but I had been curious about this painting ever since I first saw it. What on earth did the bottom part of the painting look like?
I reached out and grabbed the edge of the canvas. What ran through my head, for some reason, was the passage by Shiba Ryoutarou that I had heard earlier that day.
…I truly dislike the detectives that show up in mystery novels. Why do they have to go so far to uncover other people’s secrets? I cannot understand the source of that passion…
My hesitation lasted for only a moment. I wasn’t really a detective and didn’t know whether or not this was someone else’s secret. For all I knew, it could have just been placed here for no particular reason; just taking a look wouldn’t be a problem. I pulled the painting out from between the books and the wall. Painted on the canvas, I saw a young woman sitting on a chair. There were huge piles of books in the background and the white bird was perched on the chair.
The young woman with long black hair was wearing a white blouse and a long skirt. She was looking down at a book in front of her and there was a pair of glasses laying on her knee.
The model looked like her.
I don’t know who painted this, but they were pretty skil —
No, wait a second.
There was still something strange. The watercolor-like paint had faded quite a bit and the canvas was slightly dirty.
At the very least this wasn’t painted in the last few years.
I looked closely at the painting’s corners, but couldn’t make out a title or the artist’s name. I tried flipping the canvas over to check the other side. There were some numbers scribbled in pencil on the back.
I was at a loss for words. Almost exactly 30 years ago…that couldn’t be right. I looked at the woman in the painting again. No matter how you looked at it, the model couldn’t have been anyone but Shioriko. However, Shioriko hadn’t even been born 30 years ago——which meant that this had to be someone else.
Then who in the world was this a painting of?
I stood there in shock with my hand still on the canvas.
The sound of chirping birds could no longer be heard in the distance.