rikoren: (sigh.)
[personal profile] rikoren
Prologue

A woman groaned.
The sound was like that of a monkey crying in the night, or the creak of an old gate.
The room was enclosed in shoji screens.
A candle was the only light within.
The sticky humidity enveloping the room brought out the grassy smell of rushes.
Occasionally, the night wind would shake the shoji, the candle's flame flickering but not going out.
The pendulum clock on the wall stiffly marked the passage of time.
A bed was arranged in the center of the room.
The woman had been groaning like this for a while now, her thin arms clinging to her futon.
"That's right, you're almost there."
The dark shadow supporting her gave some words of encouragement.
The woman's body trembled--and she let out a remarkably high cry.
Her thick hair was clinging to her forehead.
As if in apology, a pair of white feet emerged from the hem of her white kimono.
In that moment, the black shadow reached out--taking a slippery reddish lump into his arms.
The smell of red blood and tepid water seeped into the birthing room. The bloody smell of a living creature.
"...Uh."
"Heheh...congratulations."
The water in the nearby metal basin was shaken, its rippling surface breaking up the reflected candlelight.
The child's voice--the baby's first weak cry--gradually grew in strength and volume.
Yet another pair of hands cut its long, thread-like umbilical cord, and the baby's cries grew ever louder.
"Welcome, little one."
So saying, the shadowy figure laid the now neatly-dressed baby on its mother's breast.
Little arms and little feet. The fragile-looking creature, looking like it could break at any moment, clung to its mother's bosom.
"Uh, uh."
Unable to speak, another groan leaked from the woman's lips, before she managed a faint, weak smile.
Not a single person saw her face.
"You are....'s child."
So said the black shadow. There was no reply.
"Now, I've got to go tell....about this."
With those words, the shadow, as efficiently as if he were concluding some ordinary daily business, straightened the woman's clothes and left the room.
The baby's cries could be heard for a while, but before long that, too, stopped.
It was a moonlit night.
The woman, as tired as she was, could not bring herself to sleep; lying there, she stared up at the ceiling, and saw a pattern like snake eyes in the texture of the wooden beams.

***

He couldn't sleep.
When he felt the mysterious troubled feeling in his chest, it was then that Tougo knew.
He tossed and turned countless times in his futon, before giving up and opening the window.
It was a windy night in early spring. Dressed in his pajamas, Tougo could feel his body temperature dropping under the force of the vigorously blowing breeze. Because of the full moon, the sky was glowing an indigo blue, and the edges of the shredded clouds were lit a bright white. Able even to see the ridges of the mountain from his room, he stood staring at the shadowy shape for quite a long time, almost forgetting it was night.
That shadow steeped in night brought back memories of his disappeared mother. He didn't know why. It had already been a month since then.
What could his pregnant mother - Akane - be doing right now? He didn't know where she'd disappeared to, and the adults had said they'd tried every possible means of searching for her, but if they couldn't find any trace of her, of course it was the same for him.
"Tougo" - he'd loved hearing his mother call his name.
She'd had a kind, soft voice. Despite his embarrassed protests, he'd loved it when her pale, thin hand patted his head. He'd never have that again - he knew.
He would never again feel her touch, or hear her voice. She'd gone somewhere far, far away. This was something a child like Tougo could do nothing to change.

Not too long ago.
Tougo, she'd called out. Look, it moved, come look.
She gently stroked that biiig round bulge - that abdomen which carried a child within it - and it moved, a tiny bump. She - Akane - spoke to Tougo. She took his little hand, placing it on her belly.
He could feel the movement, another little bump.
"It moved!"
Tougo stared wide-eyed at his own hand.
"Tha's right. It's saying 'I'm here, I'll be out soon,' you know."
"Soon? When's that gonna be?"
"When the new year begins, it won't be long after."
Tougo looked back at his mother, gently stroking her belly one more time. He could feel her warm motherly heat, radiating from beneath her loose blouse.
"Oh. Hehe, it'll be great when it comes out, Akane."
"Tha's right."
"Hey, is it a boy? Is it a girl?"
"I wonder. Ya're a boy, so maybe a girl. Which would you like, Tougo?"
"...I don't care which it is. It'll still be my sibling, either way."
It was late fall; the weather had already grown much cooler in anticipation for the winter. A strong wind was blowing outside, making a flute-like noise among the tree branches.
"We can be together 'til the new year starts."
Tougo, distracted for a moment, by the sound of something falling outside, did not hear her muttered words.
"This child will protect you, Tougo."
He turned his head, leaving the window to be near Akane again.
"The baby will? Well, I'll protect it back. I'll protect both of you, Akane."
"Ya've got my thanks."
Akane smiled.
And with that, silence descended upon the room.
The kerosene stove let out its continuous, slow burning sound. The room was warm; old, but filled with a gentle atmosphere. On the sun-bleached tatami lay a large number of crayon drawings. On a post, the marks of yearly change in height. The note by the highest mark said "Age 10."
It was difficult for Tougo, still a fourth-grader, to accurately describe how he really felt. But, the idea that he could get a little sister or brother made him feel a strange mix of both proud, and self-conscious.
An early sunset, the sign that the winter solstice was fast approaching, marked the end of the day.
"Alright, I've gotta make dinner before Yaichi gets back."
Akane stood up, putting on a white apron as she headed to the kitchen. Tougo followed after her.
"I'll help you!"

He came back to reality with the realization that his cheeks were wet. The tears felt hot on his painfully-cold, wind-blown skin. Tougo forcefully rubbed his eyes, wiping the back of his hand on his pajamas. With a last tiny sniffle, he decided to stop thinking on this subject. The crying had led to a headache regardless, so cutting off his thoughts seemed like the right thing to do.
Tougo closed the window and crawled into his futon, the faint residual warmth there lulling him to sleep. He had no dreams.
---This child will protect you, Tougo.
The words lingered in his ears as he drifted off to sleep.

In the workroom adjoined to the living room, Tsubaki Yaichi sat at his desk, staring at a blank page of Japanese-style writing paper. He'd recently got into the business of hand-written literature.
The room was deadly silent - so silent, it seemed you could even hear the dust settling.
Though the pencil in his hand was now in great need of sharpening, his writing had not progressed at all. All he had scribbled on the page was wriggling black lines.
It had only been a month since his wife's whereabouts became unknown. Unable to prevent himself sinking into despondence, a great many sighs had since escaped his lips.
The fact his young son was worried about him only served to spur on his pathetic feelings. He'd scolded himself, told himself that as a father this was a time when he needed to be strong - but still he did not have the willpower to rouse himself.
"I wonder how they're doing around now..."
What had she been trying to do, pushing herself in the last month of her pregnancy? Where she had gone - together with the tiny life housed in her slender body - Yaichi had no idea.
He was hit with the reality that he'd simply been left behind again.
Vacantly, he tried recalling all the people he'd lost before today.
The parents who'd disappeared when he was young. The grandparents who'd taken him in as an orphan. The uncle who'd gone missing one stormy night. The mother of his childhood friend-turned wife had also disappeared on a particularly windy autumn day. After that, of course, was the young man who'd been his other friend in childhood. That was a few years before he'd married.
And now, his wife.
"Maybe I'm just useless....Isn't that right, Akane-chan?"
He hadn't told anyone this, but somehow he could guess who'd taken his wife away. It wouldn't have gone against her way of thinking to say that perhaps she had been the one to make herself disappear. There was nothing Yaichi could say to that.
He had married at an age young enough to be frowned upon by society for it, and had been blessed with a child. Life as an author had not been easy, but he'd somehow managed to support his wife and child by working multiple jobs.
Living a life together with someone.
To Yaichi, it was like a dream come true. He'd been unspeakably happy, to the point he felt guilty for it. Perhaps this was divine punishment for that extreme happiness.
"I really was...awfully happy."
He repeated the phrase once again, with a sigh.
From the hall across the room came signs that his son had gotten up.
Yaichi hesitated, unsure whether to go check on the boy or to call out something, his own feelings holding him back. It'd probably be better if I stay quiet. Having had such a thought, it was plain he once again lacked the courage to face him. Maybe the boy would become familiar with sleepless nights this way. Maybe one day, once he was grown, he would go somewhere and leave Yaichi behind him.
He was still a very young boy. His mother's disappearance had left a greater wound than it appeared.
Yaichi prayed, that his son would never again experience the loneliness of being left behind.

=> Chapter 1
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Kestrel

August 2017

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