Maria-sama ga Miteru:Volume9 Chapter2
Falling Cherry Blossoms / Exam Failure
"Oh, isn't that Noriko-san over there?"
Hearing her name called, the young girl that had her eyes on the ground as she walked along the path lined with ginkgo trees turned around. Her short bob-cut hair swayed gently like a murmuring brook.
There were three girls wearing the same uniform as Noriko. Standing there, smiling amiably.
"You're by yourself? If you'd like, we could walk to class together."
Noriko thought, "This is bad."
Despite instinctively turning to look at them, Noriko had absolutely no idea who it was that had called out to her.
"Well, it's only been four days since the entrance ceremony. It's probably too much to ask that you've remembered our names?"
"Hah … "
Obviously she couldn't respond to the smiling girls with, "Actually, I don't even remember your faces." Instead, Noriko adopted the same expression as them and started off with, "Gokigenyou everyone." Since they called out to her, they were probably in the same class.
"Forgive me, I haven't been able to memorize everyone in the class's name just yet."
"That's understandable. Noriko-san took the entrance exam to come to Lillian's from another school."
The three girls then politely introduced themselves with, "I'm Touko," "I'm Atsuko", "I'm Miyuki."
"Touko-san, Atsuko-san, Miyuki-san."
As a courtesy, Noriko recited the names of the three girls. Appending the honorific "-san" to their names was the standard at this school, although she still wasn't quite used to that.
(Touko, Atsuko, Miyuki. Touko, Atsuko, Miyuki. Touko, Atsuko, Miyuki … it's not happening.)
Their polite self-introductions would probably be wasted effort. Because, by tomorrow, Noriko would surely have forgotten this incantation.
(It's because they all look the same.)
They each had different faces and hairstyles, but the overall impression was still the same.
With their old-fashioned uniforms and the same polite manner of speaking, they were all innocent, kind-hearted, adorable angels.
(Although since I got in, they mustn't check your parents' income or pedigree.)
Looking around, all she could see were well-mannered, upper-class daughters.
"Now, Noriko-chan. Shall we go? Come on."
Having been stared down by the angels, Noriko could only follow along behind them.
"Ever since the entrance ceremony, I've been thinking I'd like to get to know you better Noriko-san."
Said the girl with ringlets hanging past her ears, who had called herself Touko. It was a retro hairstyle that wasn't all that common on the street but it didn't look out of place at all here, perhaps due to the antique design of the school uniform.
The problem was the uniform.
The cloth that was matte black with just a drop of green, the ivory sailor collar with a line through it, that was something. But low-waist dresses weren't that sought after these days. Add to that, it was rare that skirts were kept beneath the knee, making it something of an endangered species. Completing the set was three-fold white socks and black leather ballet-style shoes, it was just – .
(Where is this place? What century is it in?)
As she walked, Noriko idly gazed at the row of girls. None of them were grappling with the endangered species question, they were just wearing the clothes. Until now, nobody had ever been rude enough to consider the possibility of redesigning the uniform.
As she lumbered on, Noriko plucked at the hem of her pleated skirt.
It looked as though she was the only one that thought that, no matter how she looked at it, the uniform didn't suit her. But that was probably all in her mind.
I'm different to those girls.
Noriko knew full well that she was the exception.
"At the entrance ceremony, Noriko-san, you gave the welcome as the the new students' representative, didn't you?"
When Noriko raised her head, waiting there were Touko's sparkling eyes. It looked as though their conversation wasn't over yet.
"The welcome … what of it?"
She chose her words with care. Until she fully understood what type of place this was, she should take care not to stand out.
"Nothing, it's just that you draw attention to yourself by virtue of being the one who gave that welcome."
Touko smiled at Noriko's odd expression as she tried to decipher those words, then gently adjusted the shape of Noriko's ribbon.
"A disheveled ribbon would draw even more attention."
"It would be bad if you were cautioned by an older student."
– She seemed to be a meddler.
The path through the ginkgo trees meandered from place to place. The girls stopped right at the point where the path forked.
There was a small fenced garden at this location.
In the small garden there was a small pond, and surrounding it a small grove, with a pure white statue of the virgin Mary right in the middle. Welcoming the students as they arrived from the front gate.
"Maria-sama. Please watch over us today as always, so that we can live our life properly in accordance with God's teachings."
In front of her, Maria-sama smiled with a profound benevolence as the innocent angels beside her wholeheartedly offered up their prayers.
(Please forgive me, Maria-sama.)
Noriko imitated her three classmates and joined her hands in prayer. Then, deep in her heart, she felt regret.
(Honestly, someone like me isn't qualified to stand before Maria-sama.)
When she opened her eyes and gently looked up, Maria-sama was simply looking back at her, and no reply was forthcoming.
"You were praying quite earnestly there, Noriko-san. What were you discussing with Maria-sama?"
The smiling faces of those innocent girls brought on even greater feelings of guilt.
"Ah. Um, I was praying that I'd quickly become accustomed to school life."
Noriko answered, with a strained smile.
"My! Maria-sama will surely look after you."
The three angels agreed, their shining eyes showing not even a trace of disbelief.
( … Ah, a bed of nails.)
Would she be able to survive three years at this place? Noriko surreptitiously sighed.
Even though her school life was only just beginning.
– Reverse "Hidden Christian."
That was the masochistic nickname that Noriko had given herself.
(My hobby's viewing Buddhist statues, yeah.)
In her spare time, she'd visit Buddhist temples and admire their statues. But that wasn't the sort of thing you could say out loud at a Catholic school.
There was no image of Kannon inside the statue of Maria-sama.
A long time ago, persecuted Christians would pray before statues of the virgin Mary shaped to look like the goddess Kannon, but she wasn't even close to being that devout. Noriko was simply charmed by the beauty of the shape of Buddhist statues.
The cherry trees were visible from the windows of the first-year camellia group classroom.
Since they'd been in full bloom on the day of the entrance ceremony, the branches were now quite bare. But even so, when the wind blew, there was a scattering of petals like the first flurries of snow.
The sister in charge of religious education was telling a story related to the bible scriptures.
(If it hadn't been snowing that day … )
Noriko would ponder this from time to time.
Speculating that she wouldn't have been here.
Another place would have been made for her, not here, and that place must be her proper location, right?
The snow of roughly a month and a half ago combined with the somewhat refined hobby for a 15-year old girl had changed the course of Noriko's life.
– She'd lost out in the fiercely competitive entrance exams.
She hadn't tasted a setback related to studying. She was more than confident that she could conquer the high-school entrance exams. She got a passing grade on all the mock exams for her first-choice school, and her homeroom teacher had given her the seal of approval, saying she'd definitely pass.
So why was it that she was currently here? For no other reason than that on the day of the entrance exam, she wasn't able to make it to the examination hall. All the seals of approval in the world didn't count for anything if you didn't take the test.
On the day before the entrance exam, Noriko was in Kyoto.
That day was the one day every twenty years that a certain temple made their statue of Kannon viewable to the public. – Once in twenty years. If she let that chance escape, she'd be 35 by the time it came around again.
She didn't even think about it. Chiba and Kyoto were close enough for it to be a day-trip.
(As they say, going's easy, it's the coming back that's hard.)
Unfortunately, bullet-train services were suspended due to heavy snow. So, the only option she had was to accept the offer she'd already received to attend Lillian's Girls Academy.
"Nijou-san, are you listening?"
The sisters didn't get angry, even when the students looked out the windows.
Maria-sama's always watching over you. That sort of thing was all they'd say.
"There's also Chapter 15 in the Gospel According to Luke."
It was the story about a shepherd with 100 sheep, asking if he'd leave behind 99 sheep to search for the one that had gone missing. The Bible was overflowing with parables.
The sister was still lecturing as she spread her arms wide.
"The Lord will not abandon those who seek his assistance. Let us pray together. For God is pleased when we guide his lost little lambs."
The girl with the French braids, her name was Atsuko, or Kazuko, or something like that, looked straight at Noriko and said:
"Noriko-san, if you'd like, we could go and check out the various clubs together."
"Ahh, clubs … "
"For extra-curricular activities. Are you involved with any, Noriko-san?"
"No, not really."
"Then please come. You really should join a club."
Atsuko(probably)-san said, her eyes glittering. Then she went on to say that famous lecturers would occasionally give speeches to some of the cultural clubs. As expected from a school for noble ladies.
"Obviously there's clubs for flower arranging, tea ceremony and traditional dancing, but there's also Go and shogi clubs, arts and crafts clubs, as well as an abundance of sports clubs."
"Incidentally, Touko-san's joining the drama club. Miyuki-san and I have decided to join the scripture reading club. If you'd like, we could all study scripture together."
It was a surprise attack, so her voice may have betrayed her. However the girl with the French braids didn't notice Noriko's reaction, instead crooking her neck slightly and smiling.
"How about it?"
"Well … ah, I'm sorry. There's something I have to do today."
After she said this, Noriko thought, "There wasn't a better way of turning her down? Something that would stop her from asking again tomorrow."
"Really? That's a shame."
Thankfully, she withdrew without any further objection. A club for reading bible scriptures sounded totally unappealing.
"I'm sorry, especially since you went out of your way to invite me. Gokigenyou."
Noriko grabbed her bag and sped out of the classroom.
If she waited around, she'd just get invited to another club, and that would be a pain. She should change out of her indoor shoes, or at least get out of the school building. Now then, what to do?
She'd used "things she had to do" as an excuse for declining the invitation to attend the scripture club, but there was no real reason for her to hurry home.
(Maybe I should take the long way home.)
She could go home straight away, but she'd hit the peak for club-free students heading home. The bus that looped between the main gate and the railway station would be pretty crowded. Even though it'd be comprised mostly of middle- and high-school students from Lillian's Girls Academy, she still wanted to avoid the rush.
Things would be a lot different if she left it 30 minutes. Noriko decided to kill some time.
But having said that, it hadn't been that long since she'd entered into this school. She still didn't fully understand where all the paths led. Since Lillian's Girls Academy covered from kindergarten to university all on the one campus, the campus itself was quite large.
If she'd been here since kindergarten, this would probably be just like her own backyard, but for someone who'd only newly arrived, accidentally wandering out of their territory would be like getting lost in the woods without a compass and canteen. There was wisdom in not venturing too far.
(Having said that.)
She had no purpose. She'd probably run into one of the sports clubs if she strayed onto an oval. The bible scripture club was obviously out of the question, but Noriko didn't plan to join any other extra-curricular groups either.
She'd been carried into high-school by momentum. Given that, she'd come to the decision that this place was just for learning and she'd set her sights on the university entrance exams in three years' time.
It wasn't as though the once in twenty years choice had ruined her life. If she studied hard, she could be back on track in three years.
Avoiding the sports grounds, she walked along the path that led to the auditorium. Plenty of flower petals were falling from the cherry trees planted along the rear of the school building. To Noriko's eyes, the roughly one-third of flowers that remained on the branches seemed like they were clinging to the past.
(That reminds me.)
She suddenly remembered. What about that cherry tree?
Behind the auditorium, there was a single cherry tree mixed in with the ginkgo trees.
On the day of the entrance ceremony, after confirming which class she was in from the list posted in front of the auditorium she headed back towards the school building. It was then that she caught sight of its semi-fluorescence, and was oddly charmed by it.
Why was it that only that cherry tree was that pretty?
"I guess it'll have dropped most of its flowers too."
From looking around, that was the obvious conclusion to draw.
But Noriko felt an odd confidence. That she'd definitely make it in time.
That cherry tree was somehow different to the others.
It was divine, it was as sublimely beautiful as a Shinto shrine's sacred tree.
She turned towards the auditorium and broke into a jog. The cherry trees were gradually replaced with ginkgo trees.
When she finally reached the auditorium wall, Noriko noticed a scattering of light pink flower petals on the ground.
Searching back through her memories, she turned the corner of the building. The petals underfoot steadily increased.
It should be just around the next corner. As though it were a signpost, a single branch protruded into her field of vision.
( … There!)
Turning the corner.
Noriko's breath was instantly taken away.
Standing alone among the grove of ginkgo trees with their fresh yellow-green sprouts, the single Yoshino cherry tree was in full bloom at the moment and resplendent with flowers.
Standing beneath it was Maria-sama.
There was no stirring of her body as she watched the petals gently falling in the slight breeze, like powdered snow.
Noriko had heard plenty of stories of bodies being buried beneath cherry trees, but this was the first she'd heard of Maria-sama standing beneath them.
Still, what a beautiful scene.
There were no words to express it.
Eventually Maria-sama noticed Noriko's gaze, gracefully turned around and said:
Instinctively, Noriko stammered out a greeting.
On closer inspection, it was a human girl wearing the same uniform as her. But her skin was translucently pale and she had an unearthly beauty.
The atmosphere made Noriko's delusion, that the statue of Maria-sama had taken the wrong path at the fork in the road and wandered off from her small forest, seem entirely plausible.
"This cherry tree is lovely, isn't it?"
The girl smiled wholeheartedly.
With her feminine features and her wavy hair like cotton-candy, the uniform suited her better than anyone else Noriko had seen. What she was wearing looked less like a uniform and more like a going-out dress for an antique blue-eyed doll.
(I wonder if the uniform was designed for people like her.)
Sadly, in Noriko's case, as a doll she had the features of a traditional Japanese doll. So, she was more like a Rokumeikan lady, being forced into a dress.
"Today's the last day for best viewing of this cherry tree. It seemed such a shame that I was the only one to appreciate it, so I'm glad to see another visitor."
As she said this, the human Maria-sama softly stroked the tree trunk.
Noriko thought she must be an older student, given her manner of speaking and her composed bearing.
"I wonder if perhaps this cherry tree was so beautiful that you forgot."
Noriko had no idea what the girl was talking about. Noriko's voice sounded shrill and nervous and the girl responded with, "How to speak."
"… I've just remembered."
"What a relief. I was worried that we wouldn't be able to converse, despite being here together."
After a short silence, the pair laughed quietly in the light-pink powdered snow.
"Um, have you been coming here every day?"
"Yes. While it has been blossoming. The cherry tree invites me."
"It invites you?"
"Yes, it invites me. Didn't you come here because you were invited too?"
Noriko thought that this was right on the mark.
Indeed. It had invited her. It was the cherry tree's invitation that led to her being here now.
"All cherry trees are lovely. Breathtakingly so, when they're in full bloom, coloring the world with light-pink snow. But none of them have the same attraction as this tree."
She sounded like she was talking to herself as she looked up at the branches of the cherry tree.
"I wonder why that is."
"Because it's blooming so beautifully even though it's all on its own … ?"
Noriko said what came to mind, without thinking about it too deeply.
The girl seemed slightly surprised by Noriko's utterance, but then she nodded saying, "I see."
"You're right. It's just like you said."
After that, they stood for a while beneath the falling cherry blossoms.
Neither said a word, but it wasn't awkward.
Watching the cherry blossoms like that felt incredibly comfortable for some reason.
The tree generously scattered its petals, as though it had been awaiting Noriko's arrival.
What was the girl beside her thinking – Just as Noriko thought this, the girl with the fine features that resembled Maria-sama turned towards her.
"What time is it?"
"It's 4 … 5 to 4."
"Really? Then I'll have to be going."
She said there was some sort of meeting she had to attend, as she brushed away the petals that had landed on her shoulders.
"Um, they're in your hair too."
"Ah, you're right."
She said, "Could you please?" and turned away. A short distance away from the cherry tree, Noriko picked the petals from her hair one by one.
Her fluffy hair was just as soft as it looked. Noriko caught a glimpse of the white nape of her neck in her wide open sailor collar, and even for a girl, it was startlingly captivating.
"Hardly anyone comes by the back of the auditorium, right? It makes it hard to keep track of time. I left my watch in the classroom before I came here, so you've saved me."
As they walked together, the girl showed some interest in the bob-haired young lady beside her.
"Are you a first-year?"
"I see. I'm a second-year, so we share the same school building."
When they'd made it to the main entrance of the auditorium, the girl said, "I'll leave you here," and turned away.
Noriko felt like she was in a dream as she stood there, watching the girl walk towards the school building. Somehow, it was already hard to see her go.
After going about ten metres, the girl that looked like Maria-sama suddenly stopped, turned around and said:
"Let's meet again."
Noriko felt as though she'd been waiting for just those words.
When she unlocked the door and stepped inside, a voice from further in called out, "Welcome home."
"Oh, you're home, Sumireko-san?"
"I only just got back."
Noriko approached the owner of the apartment, who was sprawled out on the sofa with her feet up on the living room table. Her stockings were balled up on the carpet, so it looked like she really did just return home. This was just a sample of what happens to prim and proper "Gokigenyou" saying young ladies after a few decades.
"I thought you were going shopping after the movie?"
Noriko picked up the discarded stockings and handed them to her, receiving the short response, "I changed my mind." The energy she'd had when she set out had disappeared somewhere.
"Are your feet sore from wearing unsuitable high-heels for someone your age?"
"You could have left off "for someone my age.""
"My apologies … oh."
Noriko deftly blocked the flying stocking-ball with her school bag. Sumireko-san had insanely good aim when she was attacking someone.
"By the way, how old are you, Sumireko-san?"
Noriko knew she was fairly old, but still hadn't heard the official count. She didn't think her parents knew either.
"You're asking my age, even though we're both women?"
As she massaged her outstretched legs, Sumireko-san looked at Noriko with upturned eyes.
"It's okay, we're relatives."
"To the same degree as watered-down whiskey at a cheap bar."
Sumireko-san laughed. Implying that their blood relationship was very thin.
Nijou Sumireko, age unknown.
From Noriko's viewpoint, she was her father's father's (ie. her grandfather's) younger sister.
"So there's still people who look after their "watered-down whiskey" out of idle curiosity then."
Noriko glanced at her great-aunt.
"You don't need that much taking care of, right Riko?"
"You said it before, all you're doing is looking out for me."
"I wanted you to say, "Please do so." After all, I'm still your granny."
Sumireko-san laughed, her bright red lips matching her suit. She certainly didn't think of herself as a "granny."
(I'm no match for her … )
It was Sumireko-san that forcibly suggested Noriko attend Lillian's. She was single and without children, so she at least wanted one of her relatives' daughters to attend her alma mater. The only question remaining was had she enjoyed Lillian's all that much? But setting that aside, Noriko's father's siblings were all boys, so it had taken quite some time until Sumireko-san's meager machinations could take shape.
Unbeknownst to her parents, Noriko had used the money set aside for the entrance exam fees for schools other than her first-choice to pay for the trip to Kyoto. But for better or worse she wasn't able to embezzle the money for Lillian's, since it was being handled by Sumireko-san. So even though she didn't think she'd fail the public-school entrance exam, Noriko had sat the Lillian's exam to allow Sumireko-san to save face. That things turned out the way they did was unimaginable.
So, to Noriko, Sumireko-san was a benefactor. If she hadn't sat the Lillian's entrance exam, Noriko would currently be without a high-school, which would have been much worse.
(Should I give her a shoulder rub later?)
Noriko decided that she should go to her room for the time being, but just as she was sliding the door she was stopped from behind by, "Riko."
"I bought a chiffon cake from Maple Parlor, so let's have tea. Hurry up and change out of your uniform."
Not waiting for a reply, Sumireko-san walked to the kitchen.
That she hadn't commented on the sounds Sumireko-san made as she got up was proof of Noriko's modest friendship.
The Japanese-style six tatami-mat sized room to the east of the living room was currently Noriko's fortress.
It wasn't some convoluted family situation that led her to be living with her distantly related granny.
They'd decided to rent Sumireko-san's room for the three-years that Noriko would be in high-school. It was a long way to commute every day to Lillian's Girls Academy from her family's home in Chiba. And while she had thought about living alone, apparently that wasn't permitted by the school for young ladies.
She could live at a girls dormitory, or with a blood relative. Presented with this choice, she chose the latter option. Living with Sumireko-san was somewhat easier than dealing with the curfews and duty roster involved in a dormitory.
Incidentally, the house in Chiba with her completely normal parents and middle-school sister was quite lively.
Entering her room, Noriko switched on the computer.
It had become her custom to take her uniform off with the beeps, rumbles and clicks of the computer as background music. She easily worked the mouse and keyboard as she changed, printing out the email that had arrived.
She probably should have checked the contents before printing it, but the sender was one of her fellow Buddhist statue admirers, so she knew without looking that it was going to be about Buddhist statues. When it came to that topic, she couldn't overlook any kind of information. She'd underline the important details, then file the mail away neatly.
"I wonder if Takuya-kun's better now"
As she put on her T-shirt, Noriko cast an eye over the printed email.
<< I know it's a bit late, but let me start by offering my congratulations on your entry into high-school. How is your new life treating you? >>
"Thank-you. The "Reverse Hidden Christian" has a thrilling daily life."
Despite the one-way nature of email, Noriko had the bad habit of voicing her response as she read. Naturally, she bowed when she was talking over the phone too.
<< I was surprised by how much you've changed while I was in hospital, Nori-chan. >>
"I suddenly sprung up in Tokyo."
She balled up her threefold socks and threw them at the basket in her closet. Strike.
<< But that's just like you. If I hadn't broken my leg skiing, I probably would have done all I could to see the Tamamushi Kannon statue too. >>
"Everyone told me I was an idiot. That the Kannon statue was once in twenty years, but high-school entrance exams were once in a lifetime. But I don't regret it … My Tamamushi Kannon!"
Noriko picked up one of the photo-albums stacked on the tatami mat floor and hugged it tightly. She thought she should study hard and get into a top university to restore the honor of the Tamamushi Kannon.
<< By the way, have you paid a visit to the Shouguu temple in District H while you've been living in Tokyo? If not, then I really would recommend you check it out. The temple houses a statue of Maitreya by your favorite sculptor, Yuukai. >>
When she read that, Noriko unthinkingly stood up and shouted:
"A Yuukai Maitreya!"
She couldn't believe her eyes, so she read the section again.
Shouguu temple – Maitreya – Yuukai. – There was no mistake.
"For Yuukai, who specialized in Acala and Kongorishiki statues, to have sculpted a Maitreya … !"
She had to go and see it. Her Buddhist statue loving spirit was welling up inside her.
Then, just at that moment, Noriko had her wings firmly clipped from behind.
"Riko. I thought I told you to hurry up and change."
"Don't take Maple Parlor's chiffon cake lightly or you'll be sorry – "
A reproachful voice right next to her ear.
"Ah, yeah yeah."
"What are you reading that you didn't even notice when I came into your room?"
Sumireko-san stepped back from Noriko, and took a long look at what she held in her hands.
"Nothing. It's just a letter."
To avoid further complications, Noriko put the letter face down on her desk.
"Hmm. A love letter?"
"That's for sure. If you had a boyfriend you'd be going out on dates, not visiting temples."
Sumireko-san snorted, then left the room, saying, "The tea's getting cold."
"I hate to break it to you, but if I did have someone I loved, we'd visit temples together."
Noriko stuck her tongue out at the back of her great-aunt. Then she switched off her computer and was lured into the living room by the sweet scent of Darjeeling tea.
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