Maria-sama ga Miteru:Volume28 Chapter6
Sprouts in Dry Wood
It was the evening of January 10 – the week-long New Year's festivities were over and it was the day before Kagami Biraki, the traditional breaking of the rice cakes – when my little sister came to visit me in my room, holding a single photograph.
"What do you want?"
I brusquely lifted my gaze from the university textbook.
I'm not sure how people generally treat their little sisters, but I never welcomed her with a smile. It had been that way for so long that to change it now just felt wrong.
Shouko and I were the real deal, blood related sisters, but our appearance and personality, and while I'm at it even our names, were completely different. Either because of that, or the three-year age gap between us, we never really fought, but neither did our relationship develop to the point where we could talk to each other about anything and everything.
So when my little sister came to my room it was usually because she wanted to borrow the huge dictionary I owned, or something similar, and even that happened very rarely.
"Onee-chan, this is for you… "
And despite that, she was now earnestly offering me this snapshot.
"What the heck is this?"
The expression on Shouko's face said that she was still undecided about whether or not she should be showing me this photograph.
"Let's see it."
I took the photograph from my little sister's hand and looked at it. And then, immediately.
I was speechless.
From the glimpses of the scenery I got while Shouko was holding the photograph, it was obviously taken at a Shinto shrine during the New Year's celebrations.
Shouko had gone on the traditional New Year's shrine visit with a friend from school this year. Consequently, I expected it to be a photo that was taken then, but I was wrong.
The moment I got my hands on the photograph I realized it wasn't some trite New Year's shrine photograph.
Unable to conceal my disturbance, I asked that question looking straight at my little sister.
In the center of the photograph was a girl, smiling brilliantly, who up until last year had been my classmate at school.
That classmate always looked untroubled as she walked ahead of me.
If asked, she'd probably say it wasn't like that at all. No, she'd definitely say that. But, back then, that was the only way I thought of her. Looking untroubled as she walked ahead of me.
She looked as though she never studied, either at school or at home, but she always got near perfect scores on the tests. She always had a bored expression on her face, but was effortlessly at the center of attention.
I couldn't stand that type of person. I didn't go as far as wishing ill upon her, but I couldn't accept all the things she achieved. It just felt like her entire existence was a complete negation of my own, hard-working one.
So I stuck to my guns. I re-doubled my effort, thinking that I would overtake her and therefore retain my self-respect.
My plan was to get accepted into some super-elite university where she couldn't follow, and then bid farewell to my demeaning high-school life.
So I devoted my three years of high-school to studying, always looking towards graduation day when I would smile victoriously. I didn't make any of those special nurturing relationships while I was at Lillian's Girls Academy, acknowledging neither a petit soeur nor an onee-sama.
But when I opened the lid, what did I find? She hadn't even shown up to fight.
What did it mean? I asked myself over and over again.
I knew all about marking relative to the curve and grade inflation, but how could someone like myself who was accepted into the top course at what was generally acknowledged as the top university in the country not win? That was just idiotic.
But that idiocy was reality.
She was continuing her studies at the fine arts department of another university. What a joke.
When I first heard about her choice, I actually broke into laughter.
But with this, there was no contest.
In much the same way that you can't compare a boxer to a sumo wrestler – even though they're both contact sports, they're just too different. They're literally two different arenas.
I lost sight of my goal just as I was about to reach it. It was as though my life plan of getting good grades then getting a good job was hazing over.
What happened? I hadn't thought that I'd been studying on account of her. But after entering university, I found that studying just wasn't as fun without her untroubled visage walking ahead of me.
That state of affairs continued day after day for about eight months, until one day.
It would have been around the middle of December when I saw 'that.'
I went to my little sister's room, for the first time in a while, to retrieve the Japanese-English dictionary she had borrowed from me the night before.
Shouko wasn't there. She'd gone to school.
Since I was only looking for my book, I didn't hesitate to open the door. She'd occasionally go into my room when I was out and our mother was often entering our rooms to do the cleaning, so there was nothing wrong with it. Anything of value to her would probably be in her drawers, and I wasn't going to open those, so I thought there'd be nothing to worry about.
I first looked over her study desk. But my dictionary wasn't there. So I slowly spun around, taking in the whole room.
The items on the built-in bookshelf didn't seem to be related to studying – there were teen novels, books about sweets, teen fashion magazines and favorite stuffed animals and picture books from her childhood all arranged haphazardly. No, there probably was a method to it. A method called, "Girl's Bookshelf."
I had a bookshelf roughly identical to that one in my room, but the contents were completely different.
This was a new experience.
It wasn't quite jealousy. It was just, no, it was exactly that.
In the end, I found my dictionary on top of her bed. She probably put it there when she was making her bed, intending to return it on the way out of the house, but then forgot about it.
Now that I had achieved my goal, I fully intended to leave my little sister's room immediately. But right at that moment I caught a glimpse of a reflection that caused my slippers to do a complete 180 degree turn.
I walked over to the bookshelf.
I ran my finger along the spine of the book that seemed out of place on a "Girl's Bookshelf."
"A photography book…?"
Not a collection of photographs. But a technical reference about cameras and the techniques involved in photography.
"What would this kind of thing be doing in Shouko's room?"
When my little sister was younger she had adorable features. My parents were persuaded by some of their acquaintances and, for a while, she had been a child model. Her dislike of photographs had probably come from that stint as a model. But despite that – .
"I wonder if something happened to her… "
Come to think of it, I knew all kinds of complicated mathematical equations, vocabulary words and grammar points, but I knew very little about my little sister.
From an older sister's point-of-view, "Naitou Shouko" was a somewhat cute, well-mannered girl who hated to study but other than that was probably having an enjoyable school-life. A silly girl.
Would a girl who hated studying borrow a dictionary from an older sister she didn't get along with all that well?
Shouko had a Japanese-English dictionary …., no, make that two. Either of those should have sufficed for first-year high-school homework. Although it looked like they were from a different publisher. I suppose our parents were only making sure we got the same type of things as we grew.
"That reminds me."
What Shouko had borrowed was the number one ranked, most densely packed with information dictionary intended for adults. When I was in high-school, I would beg my parents to buy me these as birthday and Christmas parents.
I wanted to know more. I wanted to understand more.
Shouko and myself, at her age, both had something we craved.
I put the photography book back on the bookshelf. At which point, some of the books tilted slightly. The act of taking the book out and then putting it back seemed to have disrupted their balance.
But it looked like the books were all lined up alongside each other without a gap between them. The fallen book, rather than being sandwiched by the books on either side, looked as though it was placed free standing beside the books on my side.
With an ominous feeling, I checked the book that I inferred to be free standing and found it was actually being used to mask a gap beside it. Moving away from the doorway's line-of-sight, a gap of approximately 15cm appeared.
"Why such an elaborate setup?"
Adorning that spot, hidden away from public gaze, was a photo frame. Inside that marble patterned frame was a sepia-toned photograph of two young women wearing school uniforms.
It was myself and Shouko.
Taking great care not to disturb the books on either side, I timidly picked up the photo frame.
– No doubt about it. I felt a little bit giddy.
Why would Shouko have this? Who on earth could have taken that photograph?
But asking Shouko about the picture frame she had setup in a hidden location on her bookshelf was something that I was reluctant to do, even as her sister.
I couldn't just barge in to her private life.
But even so. That photograph was fixed in my mind forever.
I couldn't believe that I could look as beautiful as I did in that photo.
The expression I had in that picture was nowhere to be found in my own photo albums. In both the class photos and the snapshots from athletics carnivals and school festivals, I always had this tense look that seemed to ask, "Am I going to fail?"
In contrast, the classmate who looked untroubled as she walked ahead of me was always beautiful.
Her melancholic face, her convulsively laughing face, her icy smile. All of her various facial expressions were radiant like a flower.
When we were in the same frame, I would always be standing some distance apart from her, shoulders stiff like I was meeting an enemy, even going so far as to scowl at the camera lens.
Just what on earth had I been fighting?
The person I thought I had been fighting had been paying absolutely no attention to me.
For the first time in ages, I flipped through my photo album, looking at the me from high-school and shedding a few tears.
Now I understood. In reality, I was still the same person as in the photograph in Shouko's room, and I wanted a picture showing myself smiling gently and at peace with that classmate.
(But it's too late now … )
I wiped away my tears and hurriedly closed the album.
It wasn't like me to think about such things. Losing sight of my study goals had probably caused me to go soft.
If only I'd realized this before graduation. Now that we were going to different universities there was nothing much I could do about it. Even I knew that.
I went for the traditional New Year's shrine visit on January 2, this year. The shrine I visited was close to my alma mater, Lillian's Girls Academy.
Was it nostalgia?
No, I didn't go there because I wanted to return to my high-school days. I went to make an offering as repayment for the 'success in school' charm that I had bought there last year.
"Looks like no-one's going to show up, after all."
Standing in front of the shrine's torii, I looked at my phone and sighed. It was already twenty minutes past one in the afternoon.
"I wasn't really expecting much."
Still, I hadn't expected that I would be the only one who would show up, as arranged.
Can't do anything about that. Given how things had turned out, I thought I'd do what I came to do quickly and then return home. Even if I waited longer, it didn't look like anyone else was going to come. Since we'd arranged a time, they'd probably have sent an SMS if they were going to be late.
It was on this very day, last year. Four classmates came to this place for their first shrine visit of the New Year. We were high-school third-years, preparing for exams.
The organizer (not myself) had apparently invited everyone in our class who was sitting for exams but the first three days of the new year are always busy so not everyone could attend. Naturally, "that girl" had also been invited, but she just looked uninterested as she fiddled with her hair and muttered:
"I'd like to go, but my family always spends New Year's in Hawaii."
I watched that happen from a short distance away. I still remember the conflicting feelings I felt when I heard that she wasn't going to be there – part of me was relieved, but part of me was disappointed. This was at the second semester closing ceremony.
When the day arrived there were only four people, including myself, that hadn't canceled. We formed a strange bond there, perhaps because of the haphazard way the group was assembled, and promised to return and give thanks at the same place, on the same hour of the same day, the following year.
But it looked like nobody else remembered the promise that they'd made a year ago.
Maybe they forgot about it as soon as they passed their exams. Maybe they didn't have time to look back at their old friends now that they were following their new life. At any rate, a no-show is a no-show.
I walked alone, following the same path into the shrine that we had taken last year. I stopped in front of the offering box, threw some coins in, clasped my hands together in prayer and reported my success.
Thinking back on it, it's a bit strange that a group of students at a Catholic school would see no problem with going to a Shinto shrine to pray for success in their examinations. But while I was inside the garden that was Lillian's, those kind of feelings were muted. Perhaps it's one of those things that only becomes visible when you take a step back from it.
(Although it's interesting to note that the fortune papers offered at Shinto shrines were first used by the Tendai sect of Buddhists.)
Since he died on the third day of the year, he became known as Gansan Daishi. Since tomorrow would be the anniversary of his death, I took a fortune paper as a way of showing my respect.
– A blessing.
"Your wish will be granted. The person that you're waiting for will arrive … huh."
I chuckled when I read the fortune printed on the paper.
I had a blessing last year as well, but this year's seemed somewhat better.
From memory, last year's was "Your wish is beyond our power. The person that you're waiting for will not arrive. They will move away from you. Your loss will become apparent." The four of us had shared a laugh wondering what part of that was a blessing.
Still, it felt like the fortune paper had somehow sensed my feelings.
That girl I was waiting for would not arrive. Because she would not arrive, I could look at this calmly.
(Ahh, that's right.)
Back then, somehow under the influence of that fortune, I had bought another one of those 'success in school' charms. One more, beyond the one I bought for myself.
(… They will move away from you.)
Gradually, the memories returned. I lied to my classmates, telling them I forgot to buy an 'easy childbirth' charm for an older cousin, then went back and bought it.
Then on the first day of the third semester.
I left the paper bag containing that charm inside "that girl's" shoe box. Neither she nor anyone else knew that it was from me. At the time, that charm was as dangerous and terrifying to me as a bomb or a gun.
As I laughed at how I was a year ago, I looked around for a branch to attach the fortune paper to. I guess that difference is what they call maturity. Either that or regression. Being inside the vortex, the current me couldn't say.
I looked up at the sky for a while, then lowered my gaze.
What's with that tree? At first glance it seemed to be withered, but something about it caught my eye.
The trunk seemed to be crumbling and all the leaves had fallen from the branches but there were small groups of fortune papers tied around it here and there, looking like white flowers in bloom.
I too made a single flower bloom there.
After tying the fortune to the tree, and just as I was about to start walking again, I saw someone I knew amongst the crowd.
I only caught a glimpse of her profile, but there was no doubt in my mind. It wasn't her face that was so memorable, it was her trademark glasses and camera that gave it away.
The first-year from the photography club, Takeshima Tsutako. No, wait, that's what she was when I was still in high-school. Since she's two years below me, she should be a second-year by now.
She took better photographs of "that girl" than anybody else. During the school festival, in the photography club's exhibition room, I forgot how to move for a while as I stood in front of the photograph of "that girl" smiling at me.
(Again … )
Why was I remembering all these things that were long past? And why was I remembering only things that I could do nothing about?
Better to lay these intractable old memories to rest with my old charm. I hurried over to the bonfire where you could burn old charms and amulets.
Right, that will be good.
While I was still vacillating about whether or not to call out to Tsutako-san, she was swallowed up by the crowd and disappeared from sight entirely.
So I decided to part ways with my charm and head home, feeling refreshed. I jogged off, forcing my way through the crowd.
There weren't any signposts pointing towards the bonfire but it was easy enough to find. The white smoke stung my eyes.
Just as I arrived at the bonfire, my heart jumped in shock.
One of the people waiting in line for the bonfire saw my face and smiled unguardedly at me.
"Fancy meeting you here, Katsumi-san."
– It was the person I refer to as "that girl" – Torii Eriko-san.
The youthful short pink jacket and matching brown checkered skirt she wore made her look younger than when she was wearing Lillian's uniform.
I was in such a state of confusion that I blurted out what I was thinking.
Why was this girl, who hadn't deviated from her family's tradition of spending the New Year's period in Hawaii even when she was preparing for university entrance exams, spending this New Year's period in-country? No, it's not even about domestic versus international. More specifically, since this was right near our alma mater, this was her 'home town.'
"Ahh. You're surprised that I came here when I wasn't a member of last year's visit, Katsumi-san?"
Eriko-san smiled as she opened one of her coat pockets and took something out, then showed it to me, saying, "Tadaaah."
"You see, I have one of these charms too."
It was, undoubtedly, the exact same charm as the one I had. A 'success in school' charm with this shrine's name printed on it.
"It was placed in my shoe box on the day of the third-semester opening ceremony. I never did find out who put it there, but I passed all my exams so it must have been a divine blessing. So I thought I'd buy one for Rei …, my little sister. She's sitting her exams this year."
"Ah, I see."
"Your group were all excited about coming back in a year's time to return the charms, right? I thought there was the possibility we'd meet, so it was only right that I should come and have a look. I didn't know the exact time, but as long as I came there was always a chance."
The only way I could keep her from realizing that my voice was shaking was by making monosyllabic replies.
Even so, small fragments of what Eriko-san said, like "divine blessing," "little sister," and "only right that I should come," were bouncing around in my head like they were on a trampoline.
"I've been busy coming up with topics for submission."
"Men – what are they thinking? Hmm, maybe it's just that they look like they're thinking, but they're not really."
"We had a huge fight trying to co-ordinate our New Year's schedules."
Eriko-san talked about her university life, about the troubles she was having with the guy she was dating, and complained about the various schemes her father and brothers came up with to try and split them apart, one after the other.
In return, I talked a little bit about how recently I'd felt as though I didn't really know my little sister.
At the bonfire we both put some money into the offertory box, joined our hands in prayer, then threw our charms from last year into the fire together.
"See you later."
We exchanged goodbyes as though we were still classmates who would see each other tomorrow then went our separate ways. We only spent about 15 minutes together; Eriko-san said there were people she had arranged to meet. It was probably her petit soeur from high-school, Hasekura Rei-san. Or if the rumors just prior to graduation were true, it might be the science teacher from Hanadera Academy.
As I watched her walk away, I thought that I should have called out to Takeshima Tsutako-san when I caught that glimpse of her before. If I had, she undoubtedly would have been able to get a good photograph of us together.
Because, if only for a brief moment, we were standing together, smiling, as though we were former close friends.
Even if it did look awkward, I was smiling at somebody.
Inside that dream-like time.
In the end, I kept going over what I should have done.
Back then. Even though it's possible I only met Eriko-san because I didn't chase after Takeshima Tsutako-san.
Which brings us back to today. My little sister had shown me that picture. A photograph of Torii Eriko-san.
"An older girl from school happened to run into Torii Eriko-sama."
There was no need to ask where or when this took place.
That "older girl" had probably called out to Eriko-san because in the photo she was looking straight at the camera and smiling, wearing the same pink coat that I remembered. Yep, this photo was taken on the second of January this year, at that shrine. Also –
"This is you here, onee-chan."
Shouko pointed to a small figure in the background behind Eriko-san.
I'd noticed that as soon as I saw the photo. Unmistakeably, that was me.
Until it was shown to me, I'd had no idea that a photo like this existed. Because, naturally, I hadn't noticed the camera.
There had been people everywhere when I went to the shrine, with photos being taken left, right and center. You couldn't respond to each and every camera pointed in your general direction.
In the photograph, I was standing some distance behind Eriko-san, oblivious to the fact that she was there, my gaze slightly elevated and smiling.
The mystery of why I had that expression on my face was soon solved. I was looking for a branch to tie my fortune paper to. In one hand I was grasping the slender fortune paper as though I was ready to knot it.
Before I blossomed a "flower" on that tree.
"The older girl didn't notice you in the photo, onee-chan, but I saw you straight away. Then I wondered if I should say anything … but, finally, I thought I should give this to you."
I decided to gratefully accept my little sister's kindness.
A year ago, I probably would have responded angrily with, "Why bother me with such a frivolous thing." I would have been angry about having my feelings seen through. But now I knew that such a response was meaningless.
The Eriko-san in the photograph smiled, as if to say, "That's right."
"And this too."
Shouko held out another photograph. It was exactly the same as the one I held in my hands.
"There were two copies printed, so could you deliver this one, onee-chan?"
Sure, I could do that. That's what I'll do. I nodded.
Her business completed, my little sister looked relieved as she was about to leave the room when I stopped her by saying, "Shouko."
"Give my thanks to Takeshima Tsutako-san."
Shouko stopped, and turned around with a surprised look on her face.
"How did you know?"
Which meant I must have guessed right. I suppose my instincts aren't that bad after all.
"Hohoho. Don't underestimate your older sister. I've been around three years longer than you."
Shouko gave a small squeal then quickly ran away. In some ways she was still childishly cute.
"Looks like she's having a fun time at high-school."
I laughed and lined up the two photographs on my desk.
I was going to write a letter, using delivery of the photograph as a pretext. I wasn't going to write about our meeting, instead I'd write about my current life at university or about my time at Lillian's high-school. To say that we could meet up for no reason at all and talk to each other, if she felt so inclined.
No, it would be for a reason.
Because we were compatriots who had studied in the same classroom.
That by itself should be enough.
I opened my university text that was sitting beside the photographs. For some reason, I had the urge to study.
Not so that I could beat Eriko-san, but so that I could walk beside her. So we could both share the same view and smile.
Even though we were walking down different paths, at some point in time we would meet again and I wanted to be able to proudly describe how I was living my life.
It will soon be spring.
Even that withered tree I saw will soon have green sprouts, and probably bloom not long after.
- This is a reference to Ryougen, a Tendai monk. Gansan means third day of the year, and Daishi is a name for a spiritual leader. https://secure.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/en/wiki/Ry%C5%8Dgen has a little bit more information about him.
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