Chapter 2

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Chapter 2: A Children’s Book with a Tanuki, a Crocodile, and a Dog?

Part 1

It was the fourth of January, and the novel feeling that accompanied the start of a new year was beginning to fade.

The people waiting at Kamakura station now weren’t travelers returning from the first shrine visit of the year, but locals going out to shop.

Nursing a hangover from last night, I also waited for the next train to arrive.  I met up with some of my high school classmates for the first time in a long while yesterday afternoon.  Many people came back to their hometown for the new year, so these meetups ended up being something between a New Year’s party and a class reunion. Sawamoto, who was currently living in Koshigoe, was there, but my ex-girlfriend Kousaka Akiho was not.

It was with a strange feeling of both relief and worry that I went to visit the Tsurugaoka Hachimangū shrine with everyone after hearing from Sawamoto that Akiho was apparently hard back at work since yesterday.

I stood for a while near the shrine entrance in front of the stump where the large ginkgo tree used to stand. I had known that the huge, several hundred year old tree fell in a typhoon last spring, but it was the first time I saw it in person. Although it didn’t have much to do with me, the tree’s abrupt disappearance had still been an unexpected shock.

Oh well. It’s not like there was some moral lesson to be learned here.

Someone in the group invited us all to stay over at his house in Zaimokuza after a long night of drinking at the bar. My memory had become blurry by the middle of the night, but I remembered everyone getting fired up talking about Antiquarian Bookshop Biblia. There was talk about how the stupid Goura was currently getting along with the beautiful bookshop owner and jokes that I should hurry up and get rejected if there wasn’t going to be any progress so they could laugh at me. I managed to avoid talking about it for the most part and left the house after a late breakfast banquet, which was just a short time ago.

A blue train with cream colored lines pulled into the station. I waited for the previous passengers to disembark before boarding myself.

While there were some free seats, Ofuna was only two stops away so there really wasn’t much point in sitting down. I held on to the strap and aimlessly stared out of the window.

“Oh my, hey—hey! Goura!” A familiar high pitched voice rang out just as the train began to move.

I reflexively looked around.

“Where are you looking? I’m right here! Over here!”

My eyes turned to the small lady sitting in the seat in front of me. She wore a down jacket and had a fur scarf wrapped around her neck.

“Happy New Year…Shinobu.” I let go of the strap and lowered my head.

This was Sakaguchi Shinobu. She lived with her older husband in Zushi.

Almost half a year ago she came to the store to take back the copy of Introduction to Logic that her husband had tried to sell. Even after the incident had been resolved, she continued to stop by the shop from time to time. It wasn’t, of course, because Shinobu wanted to buy or sell books; she just dropped in to chat. Last time she brought us assorted dried fruits that she got from Taiwan as a souvenir.

“Happy New Year to you too! Let’s get along this year too! Let’s get along!” She said as she grabbed my hand and violently shook it up and down.

“What a coincidence! I was just about to go to Kita-Kamakura to visit the shop. Are you working today?”

“Unfortunately not. I’m off today.”

I had worked up until the last day of the year, and got the first four days of January off. There weren’t many stores that were closed on the first and last days of the year, but Biblia’s schedule had always been this way.

“Ehh! Really?” She raised her voice. Shouldn’t she have expected this, considering one of the two employees there was wandering around like this?

“Is the shop owner there?”

I raised my head and searched my memory. I hadn’t talked to Shioriko about anything but work lately.

“Hmm…let’s see… Oh, I don’t think she’s there right now. I believe she had an arrangement with someone today.”

I happened to see her mark her January calendar with “Ryuu – 12pm” while talking on the phone on New Year’s Eve. Shioriko probably had plans to meet with Takino Renjou’s younger sister, who she‘d gotten along with since her school days. She did say something about the two of them having a New Year’s party.

“Did something happen?”

If she was trying to visit even when the shop was closed, it had to be something serious. Perhaps it was something related to her husband, Sakaguchi Masashi. Their relationship was almost sickeningly sweet, but Sakaguchi had a past he didn’t like to talk about, and suffered from a severe eye sickness.

“Yeah…kind of.” Shinobu put her hand on her cheek in thought. “There’s something that’s been really bothering me, and I wanted to ask the shop owner for advice. But if she’s not there, I’ll just have to go another day.”

The train decelerated as it pulled into Kita-Kamakura station, but Shinobu showed no sign of getting up. Perhaps she wasn’t going to switch trains.

“Are you going to work after this?” I asked.

I remembered that she worked at her friend’s snack bar. Maybe that place was located in Fujisawa. But it seemed too early for her to be going to work.

“No, I’m off today but…” She stopped talking and looked up at me. The train had stopped at Kita-Kamakura station, and the train doors had already opened and closed.  She had not taken her eyes off my face the entire time.

“What is it?”

“Goura, do you have some time today?”

“Eh? Yeah, I’m free today.”

“In that case, would it be alright if I discussed it with you first? I wanted to talk about a book.”

“A book…is it Introduction to Logic?

“No, not that.” She shook her head.

“This time it’s about a book that I used to own a long time ago.”

Continuing the conversation on the train wouldn’t work, so we got off at the next stop, Ofuna station. It felt kind of strange walking around with a regular customer away from the store.

“I have no problem with listening, but I don’t know how helpful my advice will be. I don’t know all that much about books…” I turned and said to Shinobu as we went up the escalator.

She leaned on the escalator handrail as we went up. “But you know more than me right? I want to talk to anyone who might know even a little. There aren’t any other people I can ask for help with this.”

Shinobu narrowed her eyes, and her thick mascara made a distinctive line with her eyelids. I supposed I could at least listen to what she had to say and pass it on to Shioriko tomorrow.

After we got off the escalator and passed through the ticket gate, I noticed another of our regulars. A girl wearing a long, hooded coat, with a sharp expression on her face, was leaning against a pillar. Her hands were in her pockets, and she stared wearily at the station building entrance. It looked like she was waiting for someone.

“Kosuga.”

I called her name, and Kosuga Nao turned my way, her eyes wide.

“Goura, why are you…oh right, you live in Ofuna…Happy New Year.” She lowered her head slightly, adding the New Year’s greeting at the end as if she just remembered.

“Happy New Year,” I responded to her greeting. Shinobu, who was next to me, looked at Nao with interest.

“This girl is also one of the shop’s regulars.”

There was an incident with her involving a Kotama Kiyoshi book in the past, but ever since then Nao had been coming by the shop often. She got along well with the homeless book hunter, Shida.

“Ah, is that so? Nice to meet you! My name’s Sakaguchi Shinobu. Sakaguchi is spelled with the characters for slope and mouth. My first name is spelled the same way it sounds. I also cause a lot of trouble for this shop. I hope we get along!” Shinobu enthusiastically held her hand out for a handshake.

Perhaps taken aback by her high energy, Nao hesitantly took her hand after a moment.

“I hope so too. I’m Kosuga Nao.”

“Are you waiting for someone?” I asked.

“Yeah…well actually, she’s already here, but she said she wanted to go to the restroom…”

“Yaa—sorry for taking so long. The wait for the toilet was so long back there at Lumine… Oh, it’s Goura. Why’re you here?”

A familiar voice suddenly cut into our conversation. A girl wearing a red duffel coat with her hair tied into a ponytail appeared. This was Shioriko’s younger sister, Shinokawa Ayaka.

“I just happened to pass by…were the two of you meeting up?”

“Yep.” Ayaka nodded as if that was to be expected.

I on the other hand was surprised at the unexpected combination. I knew that they went to the same school and had been talking a lot lately, but I didn’t think they were so close that they would hang out on their off days.

I turned to Sakaguchi Shinobu. Since she was a regular customer, it would probably be a good idea to introduce her to Ayaka.

“This person is…” Just when I started, the two of them suddenly ran up to each other and vigorously shook both hands.

“Ayaka! Hello! Please take care of me this year too!”

“Shinobu! It’s been so long! Take care of me as well! How have you been?”

They were loud enough to attract the attention of the people around us, and I was taken aback.

“You two know each other?”

“Shinobu stopped by once when you and the shop owner were away from the shop…”

“We exchanged contact information and went out for tea.” Shinobu took over Ayaka’s explanation.

I had no idea about this, but it was clear that their relationship was already good.

“Shinobu, did you get shorter?”

“Nope! I haven’t been wearing boots or high heels these days. I’ve been wearing these shoes instead! They’re very easy to walk in!”

Shinobu lifted the hem of her dress and showed her plain colored sneakers. Ayaka’s eyes glittered with excitement.

“Wow, they’re the same as mine!”

Ayaka lifted her leg to show off her own shoes. The design really was the same.

“Look at that! They match!

“Yeah, they really do! Woah!”

Kosuga and I watched from a distance as they passionately discussed how nice their shoes were. To be honest, it was hard to deal with this high level of excitement.

Well still, this is pretty incredible.

Whether it was with Kosuga Nao or Sakaguchi Shinobu, Shinokawa Ayaka’s people skills were uncommonly good if she could get along with people so well after such a short amount of time. She was the complete opposite of Shioriko. It was almost like the younger sister had taken off with all of her sister’s communication skills.

Perhaps getting impatient, Kosuga Nao pressed her lips together.

“So where are you going? I asked.

“We’re going to see a movie.”

“Yep, yep. Nao said she wanted me to watch this cartoon and let me borrow a DVD. The series has a new movie out now, and she said she wanted to see it no matter what…”

“Stop saying so much, you idiot!” Nao interrupted Ayaka, flustered, and purposefully cleared her throat.

“Anyway, let’s go. We need to hurry.”

Nao took a passcase from her pocket and touched it to the automatic ticket gate sensors before passing into the station. If it was airing at the beginning and end of the year, it was something made for kids.

“She has a cute passcase, doesn’t she?” Shinobu whispered in a low voice.

I noticed it too. Nao’s passcase had a brown monkey-like character with large ears drawn on it. I didn’t know its name, but I’d seen it around a lot lately.  Some people had pretty unexpected tastes.

“…Goura.” Ayaka made no indication of moving, and her expression suddenly became serious.

“Did something happen recently? Have you not been feeling well or something?”

“Eh? Why?”

“Shioriko has been worried about you lately, Goura. Since you haven’t been as enthusiastic lately…she’s worried that something happened, you know.”

There was of course, nothing wrong with my health. What I heard from Inoue at Hitori Books at the end of the year had left a lasting impact on me.

I didn’t completely believe that Shioriko had been in contact with her mother this whole time, but there was no doubt that Shinokawa Chieko was getting information about me from someone. It was a bad feeling, like someone was spying on me. Thinking about which people I should or shouldn’t have trusted with information would get me nowhere.

I didn’t think Shioriko had noticed. I did get an email from her in January, but the contents were the usual formal New Year’s salutations. I also sent her a similar letter in return, but thinking about it now, that was probably a bit unnatural.

“I’m doing just fine…”

“I see…Well, I guess it’s alright then.” It seemed that was all she’d wanted to ask.

“If that’s how it is, then Shioriko should feel better. Anyway, see ya! You too Shinobu!”

She broke into a small run and waved as she passed through the ticket gate.

Part 2

Shinobu and I went into a tea shop on the second floor of a pachinko parlor. More than half the tables were filled, so we chose a seat in the non-smoking section near the wall.

“Are you alright in the non-smoking section?”

“I quit smoking… It’s better that way they say.” Shinobu replied as she took off her coat.

Come to think of it, there had been news a few months ago that of a steep increase in cigarette prices. Apparently, many people quit smoking because of it.

We ordered drinks for ourselves, but neither of us continued the conversation. Perhaps because there were so many elderly customers visiting alone, the tea shop was a lot quieter than I thought it would be.

“Are you getting along with the shop owner?”

“Ehh?”

“Goura, you like her, don’t you?” Shinobu spoke softly.

I didn’t feel the need to hide it now that she asked me so bluntly. I also felt comfortable talking to an older acquaintance who knew both Shioriko and me.

“Yeah…I don’t know what she thinks about it though.”

“That girl gives off a difficult to approach feeling for some reason—it’s like she isn’t willing to open up her heart. She’s kind of like my Masa in that way…though comparing her to an old man like that would be rude.”

“Not at all…”

Masa was her nickname for her husband, Sakaguchi Masashi. He and Shioriko certainly did have common traits, though their ages and gender were completely different.

“People like that tend to look straightforwardly at the people they’re interested in and, unexpectedly, are able to understand a lot. That makes it quite hard to hide things…”

She was talking to herself, but I thought she might be referring to the conversation I had with Ayaka. It was her sort of roundabout way of telling me to just be honest if there was something on my mind.

“You’re right.”

There was no use mulling over it. If I was making absolutely no progress thinking about what Inoue from Hitori Bookstore had told me, then there was no choice but to ask Shioriko herself about it.

The drinks we ordered arrived at the table and the conversation was paused for a moment. I got coffee and Shinobu got hot milk.

“How is Masashi doing?”

“He’s doing great now, wonderful.” Shinobu grinned.

“Masashi’s eyes aren’t getting any better, but other than that, he’s as healthy as can be. He’s training now so that he’ll be alright even as his eyesight gets worse. He’s working so hard to take care of his daily needs, I think that serious part of him is wonderful…”

Shinobu had a faraway look in her eyes as she held her teacup. I hadn’t expected her to start playing up her husband’s virtues all of a sudden.

“Right, so about the book from before…”

“Eh? Ah, of course.”

She changed the topic, and I had a little trouble keeping up. Come to think of it, this was what we came here to talk about today.

“There was a really interesting book that I used to read a lot back when I was starting elementary school. I didn’t like reading at all and I don’t really remember what the story was about. All I remember is that it was really good. It’s been on my mind so much these days that I couldn’t stand it anymore. Have you ever felt like that?”

“Yeah, sometimes.” I nodded.

It wasn’t books, but there were times when I felt an intense longing for things that I enjoyed as a child.

“I want to find that book again no matter what, and that’s why I want to ask you and the shop owner for help. Of course, I’ll pay if you find it.”

“You won’t need to do that.”

This was essentially just a request for us to find a book.  It wasn’t a rare request for an antiquarian book store. I didn’t know if we would have it in stock, but we should at least be able to find a shop that did sell it.

“What’s the title of the book?”

“That’s the thing…I can’t remember it.” Shinobu said with a troubled expression.

“Huh?”

“The title had katakana in it….but I’ve always been bad with foreign names. That’s also why I’m also no good with English.”

“Do you at least know the author’s name?”

“Well, it was a foreigner. I think it was a long name, too.”

“I’m guessing you don’t know the publisher either.”

Shinobu nodded. I took a sip of coffee as I gathered my thoughts. There wasn’t anything I could go off of so far.

“…It’s impossible, isn’t it?”

At any rate, it was impossible for me. Of course I wanted help, but even Shioriko probably wouldn’t be able to do anything with only this much information.

“You said you read it as a child…was it a children’s book?”

“I think so, yes. There were lots of illustrations, but there were lots of chapters too. And there wasn’t just hiragana, there was kanji with furigana too.

“What kind of story was it?”

“Let’s see…I believe it was kind of a picture book with a tanuki, dog, and a crocodile. I don’t know what year it was set in, but I think it took place somewhere in the West….”

That’s where her explanation paused. It seemed even her memories of what the story was about were vague.

“Can you remember anything else?”

“There was a dog!” Sakaguchi Shinobu suddenly exclaimed. Didn’t she just tell me this?

“It was a really sad story…the dog was loved by the owner in the house where he was born, but as soon as he became bigger, he was thrown out and replaced with another puppy.  Isn’t it horrible?”

It certainly was cruel. That would have been a pretty harsh story for a book made for children.

“…And then he became friends with a lonely lion.”

“That’s quite a difference in size.”

“Right, right. The lion was also worried about his size at first, but he eventually got over it and they became friends. Isn’t it great how they both got along despite being so different?”

I related this to the Sakaguchi couple. There was a difference in age, and their pasts were completely different.

“So were the dog and lion the main characters?”

“No, the protagonist was a tanuki.”

“A tanuki? In a foreign story?”

This was the first time I’d heard of a tanuki appearing in a children’s story from another country.

Shinobu didn’t seem completely confident either; she tilted her head in doubt.

“It might not have been called a tanuki exactly, but I clearly remember what it looked like! Give me just a moment.”

She took out a small notebook from her handbag and began scribbling on it with a ballpoint pen. She was more skilled than I expected and finished drawing an animal with short arms and legs. Its entire body was black, it had two ears above its head, only the area around its eyes were white, and it had a long puffy tail—

“That’s a tanuki isn’t it?”

“I know right, it really is! This tanuki met several characters, like the abandoned dog, and the lonely lion.”

“Did it do anything with them?”

Shinobu squeezed her eyes tightly shut and pressed her finger to her head as if she was trying to draw out a memory.

“The tanuki was I think…trying to build a house.”

“You mean like a dog house?”

“Mm—I think it was bigger than that. It was kind of like a house where lonely children could gather…they carried in lots of bricks on a large truck and everyone put their effort together to build it.”

“So a bunch of characters appeared.”

“Yep, yep yep.  There was also a boy who was no good at studying and was trying to make friends. He was looking for someone with worse grades than him, but couldn’t find anyone.”

“That’s a pretty amazing…so humans also appeared in the story?”

“Of course they did. Not just people though. There was also a crocodile, and a giraffe…all the animals were living together happily.  I think there was also something about a zoo in the story…”

It was interesting, but I didn’t really understand what kind of world it was. It kind of felt like a Disney cartoon.

“That’s all I can remember though. I don’t know at all how the story ended.”

The reason her memory was so fragmented was probably because she read the parts she liked over and over again. That was how children tended to read books.

I took the picture of the main character that she drew and put it in my pocket. I doubted this would work as a clue, but if I showed it to someone who was more knowledgeable about books then maybe—

“Ah.” A thought flashed into my mind. I had forgotten something obvious.

“What is it? Do you know what book it was?” Sakaguchi Shinobu’s eyes were sparkling.

“It’s not that…you had this book at your house, right? Was it something your parents bought for you?”

For some reason, it felt like Shinobu’s expression stiffened.

“Yeah, that’s right…my mom bought it for me at the neighborhood bookstore but…”

“In that case, what about asking her?” I replied. It would be perfectly normal if the book their daughter read so eagerly as a child remained in their memories. “It might even still be at that house.”

“Yes…well, that might be true but…” Shinobu’s voice suddenly became small. “I don’t really…want to talk to my parents.”

Crap. I had completely forgotten that she had a bad relationship with her parents. That was why she’d moved away from home the moment she graduated from high school.

“I’m sorry.”

I lowered my head, but she flashed her white teeth to smooth it over with a smile.

“It’s fine, it’s fine. Because you’re right. I was planning to go back home to ask them anyway…ah, of course!” Shinobu abruptly clapped her hands, and a loud sound rang out in the shop. I had a bad feeling about why.

“What’s the matter?”

“Can you and the others come with me? To my home town!”

“Huh!?” I couldn’t stop myself from exclaiming.

Part 3

“…And that’s where things are now.”

It was a quiet morning at Biblia and I had just finished giving Shioriko a detailed account of what happened yesterday. I waited for her reply.

She had her head tilted to the side earlier, but hadn’t moved it in a while, as if her neck was stiff. She didn’t seem to notice the long, black strands of hair covering the lenses of her glasses

“Do you know what book she could be talking about?”

There was no response. Shioriko was still thinking hard. After tens of seconds, she took a long, deep breath like a diver surfacing from the water.

“I’m sorry…it’s a bit difficult.” Her thin voice sounded regretful.

I didn’t think she had anything to apologize for though.  In fact, it would have been more surprising if she figured it out given the only clues we had to work with.

“But I do feel like I’ve heard this story before.”

“Eh? Really?”

“Yes, but…it’s a little strange. I rarely ever forget the titles and authors of the books I’ve read.”

“But isn’t it normal? Not to remember every book you read as a kid.”

“Oh, is that so?” was her puzzled reply.

Evidently common sense did not apply to Shioriko when it came to books.

“Were you able to find any clues?”

“It’s nothing substantive, but if Shinobu’s story is accurate, then we can at least narrow the scope a little.”

“What do you mean?”

“First, this book was sold new at bookstores in the latter half of 1970.” Shioriko lifted her index finger.

“It’s reasonable to assume that Shinobu read the book just as she was starting elementary school. Of course, the book would have been written and published before then.

“And the second point,” Shioriko raised her middle finger.

“The story was most likely written in the 20th century, and was set in a European or American city during that time period.”

“How do you know that?”

Shinobu said that she didn’t know when it was written, and she didn’t say anything at all about when and where the story was set.

“There was a scene where they carry a large amount of bricks in a truck, correct? Trucks were first invented in the late 19th century, but weren’t in widespread use until the early 20th century. The fact that there was also a zoo in the story means that there’s a high chance it was set in a city.”

I nodded; that made sense. However, the range from early 1900s to 1970 was still far from specific. We had only narrowed our scope a little.

“What I don’t understand is how the protagonist could be a tanuki.” Shioriko put her fingers down.

“Tanuki have appeared in stories in Japan since long ago, but since they live principally in East Asia, they aren’t well known in the West. Perhaps it was a different animal…”

“But the picture she drew looks like a tanuki, doesn’t it?”

I looked down at the piece of paper set on the countertop. It was the drawing of the protagonist that Shinobu gave me yesterday.

“It really does…”

The two of us fell silent for a while. There were too few clues, and it felt like there wasn’t much else we could work with.

“Do you want to go to Shinobu’s home?”

Shinobu said something about how having people knowledgeable about books come with her would be more convenient, but she probably just didn’t want to go back home by herself.

“I do.” Shioriko replied immediately. “I also want to know what book this is.”

I felt the same way. The idea of someone going back home with some bookstore employees in tow felt odd though.

“By the way, has she talked to her husband about this book?”

“Huh?”

“Shinobu didn’t say anything about her husband’s reaction, so I was a little curious…”

That did seem to be the case now that I thought about it. Even if we went to Shinobu’s hometown with her, Masashi was the type of person who’d want to come along as well. Maybe there were circumstances that stopped him from going with us this time. Shinobu said her parents were strict, so I didn’t know if they would approve of the fact that she married an older man.

“But there isn’t any reason to hide it either. What if Masashi also didn’t know which book it was, and she didn’t feel the need to bring it up in our conversation?”

Shinobu herself told me that she couldn’t hide anything from her husband.

Shioriko smiled and nodded in agreement.

“I see…maybe I’m overthinking this. Anyway, let’s get back to work; quite a few online orders came in yesterday…”

“Shioriko.”

I called to stop her before she went back behind the wall of books. There was one more thing that I needed to talk about.

“The truth is, I went to Hitori Bookstore before.”

I told her everything I knew—from the Christmas card that the shop owner, Inoue, received from Shinokawa Chieko to the suspicions that Inoue had shared with me.

Shioriko listened to my story silently with her expression almost completely still. I apologized at the end for keeping it a secret for so long, but she angrily looked away from me.

“I have most certainly not been in contact with my mother, and I haven’t told anyone about you either. There is no meaning in pretending otherwise. I would have liked for you to tell me this sooner.”

“I see…I’m sorry.”

“I’ve been worried about you since the year began.” Shioriko still wasn’t looking at me.

“I was worried that something was wrong…do you remember when we went drinking? It was the day before The Dandelion Girl was returned.”

“Eh? Yeah, I remember.” I answered her question, confused. What was she bringing that up for now? For some reason, Shioriko’s cheeks were slightly red.

“I had fun that day…and drank more than I usually do, so I can’t really remember everything I said. I was thinking that by some chance, I ended up doing something strange…”

“Strange how?” I blurted out without thinking.

I really didn’t understand what she meant, but her face became even redder.

“I mean, um…like if I couldn’t stop laughing…or if I hummed to myself…or dozed off….”

Her voice gradually became softer and softer. As brilliant as she was, she got the wrong impressions at the strangest times. It was hard to hold my laughter in.

“Nothing like that happened.”

“Really? You’re not just hiding it?” She glanced at me from the corner of her eye to see my expression. Honestly speaking, what I said wasn’t completely true, but it hadn’t been a bad way to drink. Rather, it was the complete opposite.

“It’s true.”

Having said that, a strange sense of courage welled up inside me.

“What about going drinking some other day? If you’re alright with it of course.”

“I’ll think about it.”

Just as I was feeling relieved that I hadn’t been outright rejected, I noticed that Shioriko’s expression had become dark.

“If what Inoue said is true, it would mean that there’s someone out there passing on information to my mother…”

“Right…”

If Shioriko wasn’t in contact with her mother, then it had to be someone else keeping in touch with her. Someone around us was secretly collecting information about us and passing it on to Shinokawa Chieko. There was no doubt that this person would also have information about her.

Who on earth could it be?

The feeling that I suddenly couldn’t trust the people around me made me feel all the more uneasy.

“Let’s get back to work, shall we?” Shioriko spoke up.

Just as I nodded to agree, the glass door opened with a loud noise. When I turned around to look, I saw an older man wearing sunglasses standing at the entrance. He wore a plain gray woolen coat and had a bright red knit scarf wrapped around his neck.

“Happy New Year, all.” Sakaguchi Masashi lowered his head and greeted us.

“I came to consult about my wife. Would you have the time to discuss it with me?” Masashi cut straight to the point as he took off his scarf.

Some parts of it were thin and other parts thick; it was obvious at a glance that the scarf was handmade.

“Of course…what can we help with?”

“I heard Shinobu was asking you about a book she read as a child. I would like you to give me an overview of what you discussed.”

As always, he had an interrogative way of speaking and didn’t add any superfluous information.

Shioriko and I exchanged glances for just a moment.

“It was a request for us to find the book, but she didn’t know the title or the name of the author. Shinobu said she wanted to go back home to ask her parents about it and asked if we could go along with her…”

I answered his question since I was the one who talked to Shinobu directly. The moment he heard that she was planning to go back home, Masashi’s expression became gloomy.

“I see, that’s how it was.” He muttered to himself in a low voice.

“Is something wrong?”

I was starting to feel uncomfortable. Was there a reason Shinobu didn’t want to tell her husband the full story this time? After a brief silence, Masashi suddenly opened his mouth.

“I believe her real goal isn’t to find the book she read as a child. It’s to go meet her parents.”

“Eh?”

“Did you know that Shinobu doesn’t have a good relationship with her parents?”

“Yes, somewhat.” I nodded.

“Her parents are both very diligent people. They’re retired now, but her father served at the Kanagawa prefectural office for a long time, and her mother managed a tutoring school. I know she also has siblings, but I haven’t met them in person.”

I remembered Shinobu telling me before that her parents were intelligent and passionate about education. Considering their occupations, I could agree with that assessment.

“Her mother was especially strict with her, and that led to constant arguments between them. Shinobu’s relationship with her parents seemed to have calmed down for a period after she moved out when she graduated high school…but that’s when our marriage became a big issue.

“Since her mother would absolutely not approve of us, Shinobu cut off ties with her and entered into my family registry. She hasn’t been back home for almost 20 years now.”

“Doe she still meet with her father and siblings?”

“She occasionally talks with them over the phone, but rarely ever meets them in person from what I understand. She often jokes about the thin bonds in her family.”

Masashi, who had been indifferently explaining up to this point, grimaced slightly. Despite what Shinobu said, he must have felt that it was his fault that her relationship with her family was so strained.

“Perhaps her feelings have changed after all these years. Shinobu won’t say it herself, but I think she’s been looking for the opportunity to reconcile with her parents. People tend to better understand their parents’ feelings the older they become.

“Last November, Shinobu and I got a message from her parents saying that they wanted the four of us to have a meal together. It felt like they had always been waiting for the right time to restore their relationship.”

“Did you go?”

Masashi nodded solemnly at my question.

“They even made a reservation at a well-known restaurant in Chinatown. It was their first reunion in a while, and we were able to have a peaceful meal. Shinobu and her parents were enjoying themselves talking about old times. I didn’t want to get in their way, so I didn’t join in and quietly ate.”

I could vividly imagine Masashi sitting rigidly in a Chinatown restaurant as he went through a full course meal. That felt more real than him participating in the conversation.

“That’s when the conversation turned to the sickness in my eyes. They seemed so concerned that it made us feel uncomfortable. The problem came when they started asking detailed questions about how my eye illness came to be.”

I gulped. Decades ago, Masashi tried to rob a bank and the injury he sustained as he was fleeing the police remained in his eyes.  His current illness was related to that event—of course, it wasn’t something that could easily be explained.

It was only a few months ago that Masashi was even able to come clean to his wife, Shinobu.

“My original plan had been to tell them everything, but Shinobu was adamant that we absolutely not say anything about my criminal history. I had already served my sentence and reformed…there was no need to go out of my way to talk about it. I more or less agreed and went to the dinner meeting not planning to say anything but…”

…Masashi stopped talking suddenly. We looked at his face and saw large amounts of sweat flowing from his forehead.

“Did they…somehow find out?” My voice naturally lowered.

Masashi stuck his fingertip behind his sunglasses and rubbed the top of his eye as if to massage it.

“That’s right.”

“How did something like that happe—“

“—I was the one who told them.”

I couldn’t believe my ears. He outed himself on purpose?

“I just couldn’t allow myself to deceive the people who were right in front of me. By the time I noticed, I had already told them everything about my past. Her father still listened to my story, but her mother…it would be better if I didn’t say anything about that.

Masashi gave an evasive explanation. Something terrible must have happened. I could guess what happened after that, but I still wanted to hear it.

“What happened after that?”

“Shinobu argued with her mother and it almost turned into a fight. The meal ended there…all because I made a mess of everything.” Masashi took a deep breath.

It wasn’t that I didn’t understand his feelings about coming clean, considering how many years he’d suffered with the secret, but if he had just…

“I should have been a little more aware about the time and place…” Masashi said, as if he had read my mind. It seemed the man himself knew it the best.

“Umm…what was it that you wanted to talk about….concerning your wife.” At Shioriko’s timid question, Masashi lightly nodded and continued talking.

“Shinobu got angry for my sake, but I believe she still wants to reconcile with her parents. Especially lately, there are many times where she seems to be lost in thought. When I ask her what’s going on, she says she’s thinking about the books she read a long time ago, but I don’t think that’s the entire truth. I believe she’s worried about the relationship with her parents and is looking for an excuse to go see them.

Really…?

I felt a little doubtful. When I talked to her before, it had seemed like she didn’t want to go home and really just wanted to find book.

“It’s most likely that her parents—especially her mother—feel the same way. However, if they see each other again, it might turn into another fight. I’m not saying I want you to mediate between a daughter and her parents…but can I ask you to be there to make sure their quarrels don’t get too heated?”

Before Shioriko could respond, Masashi continued.

“By all rights the job of reconciling them should have fallen to me…but I am not permitted to go to their house. They won’t even talk to me if I try to contact them…it weighs on me to push this burden onto you, but please, I need your help.”

Sakaguchi deeply bowed his head.

…to be continued.

Last updated 03/29/2017.

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