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Book Girl and the Captive Fool
By Nomura, Mizuki
Yen PressCopyright © 2011 Nomura, Mizuki
All right reserved.
Prologue–Memories for an Introduction–I Used to Be a Fool in Love
She was too pure, too beautiful…
There was a fledgling scriptwriter who paid tribute to the woman he loved with those words, but when I was in middle school, I was trapped in a mire of passion that made his pale in comparison.
When I woke in the mornings, my first thought was of Miu’s face. Her tea-colored almond eyes and her plump lips. The rustle of her brown hair tied up in a high ponytail.
Miu always peeked at me with teasing, playful looks.
Good morning, Konoha.
Good morning, Miu.
Every morning I would greet the Miu of my imagination. Her eyes would crinkle with her smile, and joy would shoot through my heart. I would head to the bathroom in a haze of nervous excitement, eager to get to school so I could see the real Miu just one minute—one second—sooner.
How would Miu smile at me today? Would she be teasing me today? How far had she gotten in the story she was writing? I wanted to see her! I wanted to hear her voice and see her smile.
I couldn’t wait to get to school, and I would linger under a sycamore along the way until Miu came. When she appeared, bathed in pure light, her ponytail bobbing, I would pretend that I had only just gotten there and run up to her shouting, “Miu! Miu!”
She was all I could think about during classes, too. When her seat was behind mine, I would turn around constantly during the day, and the sight of her bangs falling across her forehead or of her lowered lashes never failed to send a thrill through my heart. When we changed seats and her desk was diagonally in front of me, I never grew tired of gazing at the slender taper of her neck or her profile that reminded me of a budding flower.
Miu usually had a sky blue binder open in front of her, writing a story on loose-leaf paper.
Writing out the dreamlike world she was creating…
The beautiful words that flashed and danced like light on the page.
When they streamed from Miu’s lips, the words shone even fresher and more beautiful, driving me ever deeper into my dreams.
You’re special, you know. I’m only showing this to you, Konoha.
Every word Miu spoke to me was sweet like sugar drops.
Back then, I was walking on air, an utter fool for love; with her smiles washing over me, I was an incorrigible dreamer.
I assumed that Miu would, of course, feel the same way about me, and I never doubted even for a moment that we were bound together by destiny.
Even after we started high school, even after we went to college, even after we got jobs, Miu would be at my side, writing her stories and calling my name with a teasing smile. And that wasn’t all. Some day Miu would become a real author, and everyone would know how good she was. That’s what I believed.
But in the spring of our last year of middle school, I debuted under the pen name of Miu Inoue as a brilliant, mysterious author who happened to be a lovely fourteen-year-old girl, and I lost Miu.
And now, in my second year of high school…
… I’m a perfectly normal high school boy, going to class like anyone else, and I go to the book club’s room after school and write “snacks” for my not-at-all-normal club president.
Chapter 1–Don’t Leave a Crumb
“Tomb of the Wild Chrysanthemum tastes like freshly picked apricots,” Tohko murmured affectionately as she flipped through a collection of stories she’d borrowed from the library. “It reminds me of being on a footpath bathed in the light of the setting sun, plucking a rouged apricot between your fingers, then popping it into your mouth and sloooowly biting into it. Its thin skin ruptures, and a gentle tang and joyous sweetness seep across your tongue as your heart squeezes tight at the forlorn bitterness of it! Ahhh, the sweetly ephemeral memories of a boy’s first love!
“The author of Tomb of the Wild Chrysanthemum was Sachio Ito, who was a disciple of Shiki Masaoka. He published the story in the magazine Little Cuckoo in 1906. It was acclaimed by the great Sōseki Natsume. The classics really are wonderful! It’s like how apricots produce different fruit every year—it’s fresh and delicious every time, no matter how often you eat it!”
Sitting at the old oak table, I wrote Tohko’s improv story in a notebook.
I guess Tohko was really into old Japanese love stories lately, because yesterday she had read Ogai’s “The Dancing Girl” and before that Yasunari Kawabata’s “The Izu Dancer” and before that Ichiyō Higuchi’s Growing Up, and she’d expounded passionately on them all.
“That’s school property. You can’t eat it,” I warned her placidly as my pencil raced over the page.
“I know that!” she answered, pouting. She had “accidentally” eaten a library book before, and she’d whined that she was too embarrassed to go apologize on her own, so she’d forced me, her lackey, to go with her.
She gave a desolate sigh immediately after. “But it looks soooo good. Argh!”
She was like a toddler looking in the window of an ice cream parlor and nibbling covetously on her fingers.
“No eating it.”
“I know, I know! Augh, this part here? It’s ever so slightly tart and totally delicious!”
“I’m serious. You can’t have any.”
“Fiiiine,” she replied lazily, her face like that of a cat basking in the sun. “I’ll just wait until your snack is ready, like a good girl.”
The room stood at the far western end of the school building and was extremely cramped, stacked all over with mounds of old books. Tohko had set her fold-up chair next to the window, and she sat with her legs drawn up on it, awash in the autumn sunlight streaming in the window as she paged through her book with slender fingers. Her white kneecaps peeked out from under her pleated skirt, and her long, black braids that looked like cats’ tails spilled over her shoulders.
Tohko is a goblin who eats stories.
She rips up books or pieces of paper with words written on them, pops them into her mouth, and munches away at them, then swallows primly.
She seemed to be deeply upset at being categorized as a “goblin,” and she would plant her hands on her hips and declare, “I am not a goblin. I’m just a book girl.”
And certainly, there was something about her that was reminiscent of an old-fashioned, unsullied maiden… if you ignored her extraordinary bibliophilism and the fact that she adored books so much that she ate them up with satisfied crinkling.
We were the only members of the Seijoh Academy book club: Tohko, in her third year, and I, in my second.
Autumn was half over, and other clubs were already starting to hand over responsibilities to their younger members. Was Tohko ever going to step aside? Seijoh was a ticket to college, so she must have been taking entrance exams… But she didn’t seem to be studying at all. Was she going to be okay? She couldn’t be planning on repeating a year in order to stick around, could she…?
I was beginning to grow uneasy when Tohko started talking to me.
“Next month is the culture fair. My class is running a curry restaurant. What’s yours doing?”
“We’re doing a manga café. All we have to do is line up the desks and chairs, get some instant coffee and tea bags, then put out manga, so it’s no big deal. I don’t really care about stuff like the culture fair or field day, so I’m fine with that.”
“You shouldn’t be so aloof. It makes you sound like an old man.”
“I think a high schooler who thought the culture fair was the most important thing in the world would be more unusual, actually.”
“If you keep looking so bored with everything, your face is going to freeze that way.”
Tohko pouted and turned the pages of her book. Then suddenly, she shouted, “Hey!!”
It happened just as I set down the final period in her snack, so I looked up in surprise.
What was it? What had happened?
Tohko held the book in both hands, her eyes bulging, and she trembled uncontrollably.
“Th-there are pages missing from this book. The most famous line is missing—it never said ‘You’re like a chrysanthemum, Tami.’ Their banter is completely gone. But that’s the best part! It was so unaffected! Oh my god, you can see where they cut it ooouuutttt! Who would do that?!”
“… Tohko.” I sighed and put a hand to my head.
“Wh-why are you acting so disgusted, Konoha? You don’t think I ate it, do you?!”
“I warned you over and over not to eat school property… ugh, why me?”
“No! It wasn’t me! I’ve been with you this whole time, so I’m innocent!”
“You didn’t tear it out and sneak a bite while I was writing your snack, did you?”
“So you really do suspect your president! How could you?! I wouldn’t do that! Even if a bookstore or library has superdelicious books on display and I happen to wander in when I’m hungry and even if my stomach starts grumbling just from the sight of the covers, I don’t do anything!” she declared firmly, puffing up her flat chest.
“Besides, it’s so crass to pick out all the best parts and just leave the rest. I eat everything, from the very beginning to the very end. That’s just being polite to the author.”
I couldn’t argue with that. Tohko would happily devour any book straight through to the end. When I sometimes wrote improv stories that didn’t suit her palate, she would whine that they were too spicy or too bitter, but she would choke down every last scrap.
“No, I wouldn’t expect a glutton like you to leave anything behind,” I murmured in agreement, and her mouth pulled down into a sour frown and her eyes turned petulant.
“I don’t hear any respect for your club president there.”
Then she closed her book and leaped up from her chair, valiantly declaring, “Anyway! I refuse to overlook someone only eating the best part! I was saving it for last. It’s like sneaking all the ginkgo nuts out of egg custard! It’s like stealing all the strawberries off a shortcake! Like picking all the shrimp out of a seafood gratin! It’s the act of a devil, stealing the moment of joy you’ve been waiting for out from under you and casting you instead into a pit of despair! The enemy of all gastronomes—I mean, of all readers! The enemy of the book club! We’ve got to stop this criminal and put the screws to them, no matter what. This is a top priority investigation, Konoha!”
I was afraid this would happen. I hated getting dragged into Tohko’s detective games all the time. Unbelievable. I tore my steaming-fresh improv story out of the notebook and held it out to Tohko.
“I’m done writing your snack. You want to save it?”
Tohko had been on the verge of flying out of the room, but she pulled to a halt.
Today’s prompts had been “Musashi Miyamoto,” “heated carpet,” and “dancing at the Obon festival in the summer.” Before I’d started writing, Tohko had hugged the back of her chair and excitedly dictated, “Autumn requires chestnuts. Write me a story like a Mont Blanc made from Japanese chestnuts!”
But I had no idea what it would taste like.
I dangled the pages from my fingertips, and Tohko gazed at them covetously, like a horse confronted with a carrot.
Finally, she plunked back into her seat and held out both hands with a beatific smile.
“I’ll have it now. Thank you!”
Tohko polished off the Mont Blanc–like improv I wrote, shrieking, “Oh noooo! Musashi Miyamoto is having a showdown with a heated carpet and the Obon dancing!! The heated carpet rolled up around him and burnt him to a crisp! The chestnut paste is too hot and goopy. There’s radish where the chestnuts should be! And there’s mayonnaise on top. It’s soooo grooooss. Urk—ugh… bleh…”
In the end, she covered her mouth with a hand and fell back limply against her fold-up chair, so the investigation was put on hold and I sidestepped the danger.
The next day was a beautiful, clear autumn day.
Tohko had seemed pretty beat up the day before, so I wondered if she’d made it home all right. With that thought running through my mind, I stepped into my classroom and ran straight into my classmate Kotobuki.
Kotobuki had been on her way out to the hall, but she suddenly recoiled and her face tensed.
I put on a fresh smile ready for public consumption and tried to give her a friendly greeting.
She glared at me then, her eyes reproachful. “Same anemic smile as always. How can you be so flippant with every single person you talk to, Inoue? Get out of my way.”
Then she walked off quickly.
I’d heard that Kotobuki had covered for me while she was in the hospital during the summer and that had made me think that maybe she wasn’t so bad, but the second term had started now, and she was still acting the same as ever. She’d always been a harsh beauty and had never been a very friendly person, but I felt like her natural personality was even worse around me and that she gave me her prickliest looks and comments.
Had it just been a hallucination when I saw Kotobuki hang her head and look like she was about to cry in her hospital bed? What she’d said that day had been nagging at me, but I could hardly ask her about it.
Sighing, I set my bag on my desk, and my classmate Akutagawa came over.
“Oh, morning, Akutagawa.”
I guess Akutagawa had seen that exchange with Kotobuki. “Don’t let her bother you,” he reassured me.
“Thanks, but you’re a little late for that.”
“Yeah. If Kotobuki suddenly started being nice, I think I’d keel over in shock. Oh, hey, can I check my math homework with yours?”
We opened our notebooks on my desk and exchanged brief conversation. Akutagawa’s notebooks were always perfectly organized and easy to read. His sober, tranquil personality came through even in his handwriting.
He was tall with broad shoulders and cool, masculine features, and he was calm, honorable, and balanced—Akutagawa was a lot of things I wished I could be. We weren’t close enough that I would call him a friend, but it felt comfortable being around him.
Just then, Akutagawa’s pants pocket vibrated.
“ ’Scuse me.”
He pulled out his cell phone, checked the screen, and frowned.
His face was dark as he glowered at the display, and there was something threatening in the air around him that made my heart skip a beat.
Akutagawa muttered another apology in a steely voice and went out into the hall.
Who could that call have been from?
His family? A friend? Maybe a girlfriend?
But he’d never mentioned anything about a girl before. He was such a placid person that his look of momentary loathing unnerved me. So even Akutagawa could look like that…
I never imagined that that would be the start of all the trouble.
I was walking down the hall during lunch when I felt someone looking at me.
A weak voice had called out my name, and I turned around to see a meek-looking girl with glossy hair pouring down her back.
Wait—I think this girl is in my grade. I didn’t know her name, but I’d seen her occasionally. She was pretty, so she left an impression. I wonder what she wanted from me?
The girl looked like she was bursting with nervous energy.
“I’m sorry to stop you like this. Um, my name is Sarashina. I’m in class three. You’re… Kazushi’s friend, right?”
“Oh, I’m sorry.” Her pale cheeks flushed red. “I mean the boy in your class, Kazushi Akutagawa. I’m going out with him.”
She was Akutagawa’s girlfriend?
I was so shocked, I stared back at her skeptically. Sarashina watched me with a look of desperation on her face. Her hair was lushly soft, and her face seemed pure and kind—a perfect honor student beauty. She would be a perfect match for Akutagawa.
This was the first I’d heard of Akutagawa having a girlfriend. I knew lots of girls liked him, and just recently there had been a cute, light blue envelope stuck into one of his textbooks. I’d asked him if it was a love letter, but he mumbled something and seemed uncomfortable.
Since Akutagawa and I were the kind of acquaintances who didn’t even know much about each other’s families, it wasn’t that strange to find out that he had a girlfriend.
“Er… I’m sorry. I didn’t know he had a girlfriend.”
Suddenly Sarashina’s face clouded over. Oops—maybe I shouldn’t have said that.
“… So Kazushi hasn’t mentioned me to you.”
“Well, I mean, Akutagawa and I aren’t really that close…”
I tried to correct myself quickly, but Sarashina didn’t seem to hear me.
“Kazushi has been acting strangely lately. It seems like he’s avoiding me… I wonder if there’s another girl that he likes.”
I saw tears gathering in her black eyes and didn’t know what to do. I was terrible at stuff like this. I tried to say something nice, though.
“Are you sure it’s not a misunderstanding? I don’t think Akutagawa’s the type to cheat on a girl. If it’s bothering you, maybe you should ask him about it?”
Sarashina’s eyes teared up even more when I said that, and she fixed her gaze on at me.
“Could you ask him for me, Inoue?”
“I’m too scared to ask him myself. And you’re his friend, so he’ll probably tell you the truth. Please, Inoue? You’d be doing me a huge favor.”
I caved. How did I always get dragged into things?
After classes ended, I was struggling with how to broach the subject with Akutagawa.
Akutagawa was leaving the room. Oh no! I rushed after him.
What else could I do? Better to get bad stuff over with quickly. I would just ask casually, so things didn’t get all serious.
Akutagawa, are you dating anyone right now? A girl I know wanted me to ask you, so…
But as he strode ahead, I couldn’t close the distance between us at all. Akutagawa belonged to the archery team and had been first-string at the practices since his first year. I thought he was going to the practice hall, but then he turned into the library.
He went past the front desk until coming to a stop in the dimly lit corner at the very back, where they kept the Japanese literature, and began rummaging through the books. He would take a book off the shelf, riffle through the pages, then put it back.
He seemed intent on choosing the right book, but maybe he was looking for something?
Maybe it was my stress that made the area seem oddly quiet to the point that I was sure Akutagawa would hear me gulping. I hesitated to call out to him, squelching my breath and standing behind a shelf. Just then, Akutagawa took a fold-up box cutter out of the book bag slung over his shoulder.
He pulled the blade open with his fingertips. My eyes caught the gleaming edge.
What was he doing?
I realized he was acting strangely, and my palms started to sweat. I held my breath and didn’t even dare blink as I watched him. His expression grim, Akutagawa rested the tip of the blade on the book’s center fold.
My heart skipped a beat.
He drew the blade down the page with a practiced motion, and I flinched, as if the blade had pierced my own skin.
The image of Tohko pouting and holding Tomb of the Wild Chrysanthemum out in front of me yesterday came vividly to mind.
The pages that weren’t where they were supposed to be and the mark of a knife…
Was Akutagawa the one who’d damaged the book?!
I grabbed hold of a shelf. My fingers brushed a book and knocked it into the book beside it, making a slight sound.
Akutagawa turned around, his eyes wide, and he stared at me blankly.
I stared back at him in disbelief.
Akutagawa’s brow furrowed in pain.
My head was numb with heat, my thoughts utterly mired.
“Akutagawa, why are you…”
I managed to get the words out somehow.
Just then, the sleeve of a girl’s school uniform reached past me and a fist boldly caught the hand in which Akutagawa held the knife.
“I got you! Caught in the act!”
The school uniform belonged to the book girl, her long braids swaying like cats’ tails as she leaped out, her breathing wild—it was Tohko, president of the book club.
Ever since that day when I was made aware of the fact that I’m a contemptible, inferior person, I’ve worked hard to be honorable toward the people around me.
Ever since that evil day when everything was torn apart, drenched in blood, and passed away to a place I couldn’t reach, I’ve tried to act diligently to avoid making foolish choices again.
I hoped I would be able to face your wish with sincerity.
Whenever I think of what you must have felt, what it must have cost you to write this letter, my heart feels like it’s on fire and I feel compelled to do whatever I can.
But your demands are too cruel. I pushed my sincerity to its limits as best I could and gave the best response I was capable of, but even so, I doubt you were satisfied.
I can’t give you what you wish for. That would be the insincere act of a demon and would lead to the ruin of everything.
“Now then, why were you cutting up library books? Start explaining yourself.”
Back in the book club room, which was overtaken by old books, Tohko was trying to act threatening, like the bad cop in a TV show. A book of stories by Takeo Arishima lay on the rough surface of our wobbly oak table with the pages that had been cut out arrayed next to it.
Akutagawa was sitting in a chair, hanging his head in silence.
Yesterday, Tohko had gotten sick after eating my snack and had declared the investigation open. She had been keeping watch at the library in order to catch the slasher right after classes.
“It looks like my gut was right. The guilty always return to the scene of the crime. Skipping out on cleaning duty and battling hunger while I hid behind that shelf for thirty minutes paid off.”
She sounded so self-important, I felt myself getting a headache.
Tohko had dragged Akutagawa straight back to the club room.
“The part you cut out was a scene from ‘A Bunch of Grapes.’ The boy has stolen the art supplies of a classmate, and his deed is revealed in front of everyone. The teacher takes him aside, and just as he feels ready to burst with shame, the teacher places a bunch of grapes on his lap and comforts him—it’s a famous, heartwarming scene! It’s the most delicious scene in this story! Have you ever imagined the pain and the sorrow of the person who’s forced to just eat the skins of grapes without anything inside them?”
Tohko’s voice was shaking, as if this situation was utterly unprecedented.
“I don’t think your average high schooler has thought about that, actually,” I interjected, and she glared at me.
“You stay out of it, Konoha.”
“I don’t care if he is your friend. As a book girl, if food is desecrated at his hands—I mean, if he damages the sanctity of the written word, I can hardly overlook such an act. Why would you do something like that?”
As Akutagawa opened his mouth to answer, Tohko’s voice suddenly grew louder.
“This is my theory. To come right to the point, you are a devotee of naturalism. Your favorite book is The Quilt by Katai Tayama.”
At this preposterous declaration, Akutagawa and I both turned and gaped at Tohko, whose nose was thrust confidently into the air.
“ ‘A Bunch of Grapes,’ which you rendered incorporeal, was written by Takeo Arishima, one of the literary men who congregated in the artists’ group called the White Birch Society, and was published at the turn of the century. The counterpart to the White Birch Society, which loudly extolled humanitarianism and idealism, was the naturalists—literature which sought to describe reality objectively and which was personified by Katai Tayama. The White Birch Society actually arose from a rejection of naturalism. So it came to me: This is the reckless act of youth and love by a person who supports naturalism from the very bottom of his heart.”
Tohko’s imagination was what was reckless.
I slumped, but Akutagawa spoke up calmly beside me.
“You’re mistaken, actually.”
“What? I… I am?” Tohko blinked in wonder.
An awkward silence filled the cramped room.
“So then, why did you cut up those books?”
She tilted her head in timid curiosity, and her long, thin braids spilled over her frail shoulders.
Apparently Tohko’s confusion set him at ease, because Akutagawa sat up straighter and began to tell his story with an honorable set to his face.
“My midterm grades weren’t what I was hoping for, and I was annoyed. I’ve had this desire to hurt something—to cut something up for a while… I thought that maybe cutting up a book would satisfy that urge, and so I tried it.”
His grades weren’t what he was hoping for? Hadn’t he been fifth-highest ranked in our grade? And if you were participating in club activities at this school, wasn’t that good enough? But maybe for Akutagawa, fifth was a failure that made him cringe in pain?
Tohko, who regularly bragged (?) that she had never gotten more than a thirty in math, also looked like she was having trouble believing him.
“You cut up a book because you got a bad grade?”
“It really has nothing to do with naturalism?”
Tohko’s face drooped in disappointment, and she fiddled with the ends of her braids.
Akutagawa stood up, back still straight, and bowed his head deeply to us both.
“I’m sorry for causing you all this trouble. I’ll go to the library to apologize and pay for the books I cut up.”
He moved to leave the room, but Tohko called out to him, “Wait! If you regret what you did, there’s no need to tell anyone it was you.”
She smiled easily at Akutagawa as he turned back around, trying to break the tension.
“You’ll still make it up, of course. Luckily, I have some pull with the library staff. I’ll say some bugs chewed them up and the book club’s alums donated new books, and they’ll switch them out. It’ll make the book club look good, too, so we both win.”
I quickly nodded my agreement.
“Yeah, that’s good. Let’s do that, Akutagawa,” I said.
Tohko could come in handy sometimes after all. I was just thinking about writing her a super-sweet story later when she continued.
“But! That isn’t going to solve the problems you’re facing. You need something more in order to free you from all your troubles, so you can savor your time in school with sunshiny feelings. And what you need is to throw yourself body and soul into a project with your friends. The vigor of youth will banish your stress to another world!”
There were some ominous signs developing. Akutagawa also frowned suspiciously.
Tohko flashed a grin at him.
“So, Akutagawa, why don’t you participate in our play for the culture fair?”
After Akutagawa asked for time to think about this, looking utterly dumbfounded, and left the room, I rounded on Tohko.
“What are you talking about?! You never said anything about putting on a play for the culture fair!”
Tohko hugged the back of the fold-up chair and looked up at me joyously.
“But I already filed a request with the event board and got hold of a stage.”
“Well, Maki made a crack about how the orchestra is putting on a concert in their personal music hall, but the book club isn’t doing anything again this year. And it hurt my feelings. Last year we didn’t put out a single newsletter, and all we did was an exhibit of classical literature… And then nobody came, and all you did was goof off and do crossword puzzles.”
Somewhere in there she started glaring and pouting at me. I was fed up.
“The reason we didn’t have a single newsletter was because you ate them all.”
“Are you sure? Well, anyway, I can’t lose to the orchestra this year just because they have more people. Besides, someone might see our play at the fair and find out how amazing we are and join the club.”
Given those choices, the latter was probably the more urgent problem. Tohko had been worried for a while about how few people were in the club and had told me, “You’re a good-for-nothing, Konoha, so the club could fall apart once I graduate. How could I live with myself?”
“Listen, Konoha. This is an order from your president. As a member of the book club, you’re going to make the club look good at the fair and bring your A-game to ensure we get at least one new member.”
And there it was! Tohko’s “presidential order.” I didn’t want to draw attention to myself—all I wanted was to live my life in peace.
“Can we really put on a play when there’s just the two of us?”
A smile flashed over Tohko’s face.
“That’s why I asked Akutagawa, of course. Ever since I decided that we would perform in the culture fair, I’ve had my eye on him. I figured he would draw in the female crowd. I was going to get you to talk him into it, but he saved us a lot of trouble. One more benefit of my innate virtues, I guess.”
That had no connection whatsoever to Akutagawa’s problems. It was just Tohko looking out for her own best interests. But Tohko had seized on his weakness and was trying to drag him into this inexplicable play. I felt sorry for Akutagawa.
“Exactly what kind of play are we doing?” I asked warily.
“As befits the book club, it’s going to be a major literary work, of course. Melancholy and delicious and rich with the vigor of youth! I thought it would be neat if the costumes were from just before the turn of the century, so this last week I’ve been scouring the choices.”
And then all she’d read was romances?
Tohko got up from her chair and took a book from the pile and loudly proclaimed, “And so I chose this—Love and Death by Saneatsu Mushanokōji!”
“Mushanokōji?” I asked, remembering something I’d learned in class. “Isn’t he from the White Birch Society, too?”
Tohko nodded enthusiastically. “That’s right! It feels almost fated that Akutagawa cut up a book by Takeo Arishima, who’s also in the White Birch Society!”
I wish she wouldn’t call that fate…
Tohko seized that opportunity to go into greater detail.
“Saneatsu Mushanokōji was born on May 12, 1885—the eighteenth year of the Meiji era—the youngest child of minor nobility. But despite that, his father died young, and as the family wasn’t exactly wealthy, they were forced to live frugally.
“He progressed to an academy, where he met Naoya Shiga, and the two of them published a magazine together called The White Birch. As the key figures in the magazine, they left behind a great many works that forcefully evoke the beauty and goodness humanity possesses. If you think youth, you have to think White Birch Society! Democracy at the dawn of the century!
“Naoya Shiga is called the god of fiction, and he left us famous works like ‘At Cape Kinosaki’ and ‘The Errand Boy’s God,’ written in an intellectual style, which was pared down to its barest elements! Takeo Arishima, who described human destiny and emotion with searing phrases that gushed like blood! Ton Satomi, who used rich psychological description and a rhythmic style to establish a ‘philosophy of sincerity,’ which devoted the body to the desires of one’s own heart!
“If the writing of Naoya Shiga is the ultimate soba made by a famous chef to be both chewy and smooth going down the throat, then Takeo Arishima’s work would be a gooey raw oyster with lemon spritzed over it. Ton Satomi tastes kind of like boiled potatoes that are perfectly smooth on the outside. They’re all tasty enough to make my tongue tremble, and I always eat too much. Arishima’s The Agony of Coming into the World and Satomi’s A Carefree Fellow are must-reads.
“And this is the person who absolutely must not be overlooked! Saneatsu Mushanokōji! For me, Mushanokōji is the White Birch Society. People tend to think that because of his grandiose name and the fact that he’s from a noble family, the things he writes must also be impenetrable and difficult. But when they actually come into contact with his work, they’re shocked at how entertaining and easy to read they are.
“The special appeal of Mushanokōji has got to be how much dialogue he uses and how buoyant it is. He often has long lines that take up an entire page, but there’s rhythm in everything and you can read it all effortlessly! If I had to compare it to something, I would say Mushanokōji’s works are like tofu from a high-end Japanese restaurant. The texture is refreshing and light while the soy flavor brings out an exquisite sweetness and depth, and then you get the lingering taste of the coagulant, and the moment you’ve polished off the very last bite, you sigh and think, My gosh that was delicious.”
She closed her eyes, and I thought she really was going to sigh, but then she snapped her eyes open and drew her face closer enthusiastically.
“Out of everything he wrote, the heroine of Love and Death, Natsuko, is one of the loveliest heroines in the history of Japanese literature.
“She’s pure and refreshing like alabaster tofu, delicious even if you eat it plain with no toppings at all! She exchanges letters with the main character, who’s gone to study abroad, and her writing is so artless, it sends a jolt through your heart. Oh, and—and—the scene where she appears is so cute and adorable!! A bunch of girls are gathered in a garden having a handstand competition. Natsuko is famous for her handstands, and she even does a flip. At the celebration for her older brother’s birthday, she executes an amazing flip, and the guests shower her with applause!”
“Hold on a second!”
I forced my way into Tohko’s unflagging discourse.
“A heroine who does a flip? That’s never going to happen! Who’s going to do that?”
“But anyone can stand on her head at least! And Natsuko says that she practiced doing somersaults and then just naturally started doing flips. It’ll be fine.”
Tohko smiled carelessly, but I cut in sharply. “No way. Or at least, no way for someone who gets hit in the face by volleyballs, or gets tangled in the net when she tries to spike, or who hits herself in the head with the bat when she swings in softball, or who tries to show off doing the butterfly in swim class, but her legs cramp up and she drowns in the pool like you do. Totally impossible.”
Tohko flushed bright red.
“How exactly are you witnessing all of these embarrassing things happening to me?”
“Because you’re always doing embarrassing stuff. I just want you to accept that you have zero athletic ability. You’ll never be able to do a handstand or a flip.”
That seemed to infuriate Tohko, and she pouted.
“That’s not true. As long as I have my love for the book club, I’ll be able to do it.”
“Does the book club have anything to do with it?”
“Sure. My love for the story makes anything possible. One or two handstands is nothing. I’ll show you the power of my love.”
I saw she was going to try to do a handstand against the wall, and I panicked.
“Don’t do that! What if you hurt yourself? Besides, if you flip over in those clothes, your skirt is going to fall down and you’re going to flash your underwear.”
“I’m wearing gym shorts, don’t worry. Open your eyes and get a load of this!”
Tohko raised both hands high overhead and kicked off powerfully toward the wall.
“Waugh! Tohko, stop!”
Her full pleated skirt flipped over and her pale, thin legs stretched into the air.
As soon as I caught a glimpse of the black shorts covering her tiny butt, her extended legs reeled forward and she screamed.
I grabbed at Tohko’s ankles but only managed to catch her right leg, and we both toppled into a pile of books.
The stack of books fell down around us like an avalanche, dust and mold billowing up on all sides. Then the collapsed mound of books knocked over the pile that had been next to it, and the pile next to that one collapsed, too, until it was a total massacre, scattering all the books in the tiny room.
Tohko was flat on her back, buried under a ton of books, sneezing every time she breathed in the dust. Tears were in her eyes as she said, “Ahchoo! I guess we should do a different story after all.”
Wasn’t there any way I could get Tohko to give up on performing a play?
The next day, I sat at my desk in class with an anxious look on my face, thinking this over, when Akutagawa came over to stand in front of me.
I sat up straighter reflexively. With his typical quiet expression, Akutagawa said, “Sorry for putting you and Amano through all that yesterday.”
I was relieved to hear his placid tone and gave him the same smile I always did.
“Don’t worry about it. I was surprised, but I suppose everyone gets annoyed at something.”
Yes! If I told Tohko that Akutagawa wouldn’t be in the play, she might give up on the idea, too.
I leaned forward.
“About the play—Tohko is just letting the idea run away with her. You don’t have to do it. Do you want me to talk to her?”
But Akutagawa looked earnest as he said, “No, I’ve decided to do it. I’m a boring person without any training as an actor, so I might just get in your way. But I intend to give it my best effort. I hope that’s all right.”
… He… WHAT?!
When I saw the troupe gathered in the tiny club room after school, my eyes bugged out yet again.
“K-Kotobuki?! And… and Takeda?!”
“What’s your problem? The only reason I’m doing this is because Tohko asked me to help. It’s got nothing to do with you! Like I would ever want to do a scene with you.”
Standing next to Kotobuki and her bitter assault was a petite girl with billowing hair, smiling cheerfully.
“Heh-heh. It sounded neat, so I’m on board!”
Takeda was a first-year student who worked in the library. I had ghostwritten love letters for her before and all sorts of stuff had happened, so now she dropped by the book club to visit from time to time.
Takeda looked up at me with friendly, puppylike eyes and inclined her head winsomely.
“Hold on! Konoha, your face is all tense. Don’t you want to perform with me?”
“No, that’s not—”
Kotobuki glared at me as I scrambled for an answer. Her look was much harsher than usual. It occurred to me that Kotobuki also worked in the library, so she and Takeda probably knew each other. And Kotobuki had once trashed Takeda as “a girl who could be the victim of some guy’s Lolita fantasy.”
Could we really do this? With this group?
A cold sweat was covering me when Akutagawa came to stand next to me with a serious look on his face. When she saw him, Takeda shrieked.
“Ohhh! Are you going to perform, too, Akutagawa? That’s SO. COOL. My friends are going to be so totally jealous! You have a lot of fans in first year, too! Oh—my name’s Chia Takeda. I used to watch the archery team a lot.”
Akutagawa nodded benevolently. “Yeah, I remember. You even came with Inoue once or twice.”
“That’s right. We’re friends.”
She twined her arm around mine and giggled. Kotobuki had kept her face turned away, but she spun around with terrifying force to look at us.
“I hope you don’t mind, either, Konoha. Oh—and try to get along with everyone, Nanase. Can I call you Nanase?”
“NO,” Kotobuki answered immediately, her eyebrows twitching.
Takeda was all smiles in response.
“Got it! Nanase it is, then!”
“I told you no, didn’t I?”
“Eeee! Nanase, you’re so scary!”
Takeda clung to me even tighter. When Kotobuki saw that, she looked like she was about to snap.
“Grrr… How long are you gonna keep your arm around her, Inoue?!”
“Uh, s-sorry!” I stammered.
Kotobuki unleashed her attack on me, and I quickly freed my arm from Takeda’s. Takeda whined sadly.
“We’re not elementary school kids in some pageant, so stop clinging to each other.”
Kotobuki’s face was scarlet, and she turned away sharply.
Akutagawa watched the whole exchange with a mature attitude.
And then there was Tohko, the cause of all this…
“So! Everyone gets along already! My vision was impeccable when I picked out this group.”
She nodded, completely self-satisfied. I wanted to go home.
After we somehow crammed five chairs around the table and each of us sat down, we finally started discussing the play. Tohko proudly offered up an old hardcover book.
“And so, after much deliberation within the club, we have decided that the play will be Saneatsu Mushanokōji’s Friendship!”
“Oh wow! That sounds sooo prestigious!” Takeda clapped wildly.
“After much deliberation”? All Tohko did was settle for the safe choice of Mushanokōji’s most famous work after she couldn’t pull off a handstand.
Tohko went on, unconcerned.
“Friendship was written as a serialized novel for the Osaka Daily newspaper in 1919. Have any of you read it?”
“No.” “I sure haven’t!” “Me, either.”
Akutagawa, Takeda, and Kotobuki replied simultaneously.
“Then I’ll give you a brief rundown of the story. The characters are the playwright Nojima; his friend Omiya, an author; Sugiko, the student that Nojima loves; Takeko, Sugiko’s friend and Omiya’s cousin; then there’s Nakata, who’s Sugiko’s older brother and Nojima’s friend; and Hayakawa, Nojima’s rival for Sugiko’s love. I suppose that’s everyone.
“The story starts with the main character, Nojima, falling for Sugiko the first time he meets her. Nojima becomes convinced that Sugiko will be his wife, and he goes to his friend Nakata’s house in order to see her and becomes blinded with love for her.
“Nojima only reveals these feelings to his best friend Omiya. Omiya is a virile, honorable man, and he listens to Nojima earnestly and offers him his support.
“But Sugiko prefers Omiya.
“Trapped between love and friendship, Omiya leaves to study abroad in order to fulfill the duty of friendship, but Sugiko writes him letter after letter. And so, finally unable to restrain his feelings for her, Omiya asks her to come away with him.”
Takeda’s eyes were wide.
“Woooow. So Nojima loses his girlfriend, and then his best friend deserts him, too? That’s awful!”
“Yes. The last scene is poignant but extremely moving and powerful. Besides, it’s so stirring the way Nojima swings between joy and despair in his love for Sugiko. Look, look—isn’t this scene wonderful? Nojima writes Sugiko’s name in the sand, and he prays that if the letters don’t disappear until the waves wash over it ten times, she’ll return his feelings. It’s so romantic!”
Tohko flipped open to a page as she described the scene.
Takeda and Kotobuki leaned in on either side of her to look.
The three of them pressed together so closely their heads were almost touching, and they leafed through the book, skimming it and saying things like, “Oh! This part is the best!” or “But what about this scene?”
At first Tohko was unchallenged as she argued heatedly for Nojima. “See? See? Isn’t Nojima adorable? You can totally understand how he feels, like the world completely changes when you like somebody.” But soon Kotobuki and Takeda started to argue with her.
“Whaaaat? But Tohko, Nojima gets way too carried away.”
“I agree! If a boy loved me that passionately, I might back off. Nojima acts like a total girlie schoolgirl.”
“You, you think? Isn’t this normal if you’re in love?”
“But in her letters to Omiya, even Sugiko is like, ‘I’d rather die than marry Nojima,’ or ‘I don’t want to be alone with Nojima for more than an hour.’ ”
“I totally get that. Nojima is obnoxious. He just starts treating Sugiko like she’s his wife, and if she even talks to another man, he gets all angry and says, ‘That woman should be fed to the pigs. She is unworthy of my love.’ Who does this guy think he is?”
“Seriously! He wants to be the only one Sugiko needs, and he’s in this fantasy where he’s an emperor and she’s the queen. Of course, Sugiko would try to get away from that!”
The two of them had suddenly found themselves on the same wavelength, but Tohko continued to desperately defend Nojima.
“What?! But that’s what’s so cute about him! When people fall in love, they construct all these stories in their minds and get fluttery and excited. But at the same time, they have no self-confidence and get irritable and depressed, and they take their stress out on people like a little kid would.
“If the person they like so much likes them back, they can become much better people than they are. They could even rule the world. That happiness you feel, like your heart is soaring up to heaven, and then that anxiety when you want to cry because you come back to your senses. Nojima is genuinely running in panicked circles between those emotions. I think he’s very straightforward and cute and wonderful anyway.”
“That may be your opinion, Tohko,” Kotobuki replied crisply, “but I just can’t get behind it. If you indulge boys who get these delusions, they’re just going to get more intense.”
“Hundred percent! I agree! Compared to him, Omiya is smooth and amayzing. Like when he defeats Sugiko at Ping-Pong—he’s just too hot for words!”
“Yeah.” Kotobuki nodded, looking triumphant. “Omiya’s a great guy. The things he says when he’s about to go abroad make me want to cry.”
“Come onnnn! You have to appreciate Nojima’s charms! You guys!”
I was impressed that they could get this worked up over a fictional character. Unable to jump into the girls’ discussion, Akutagawa and I were staring at them blankly when Takeda brought it back around to us.
“Konoha, Akutagawa—what do you two think?”
“What—? Uh… Nojima definitely didn’t pick up on Sugiko’s hints. But I’m not sure how I feel about Omiya putting his letters to Sugiko in that magazine and then telling Nojima out of nowhere to go read them.”
Then Akutagawa spoke up in a firm voice.
“I think Omiya shouldn’t have accepted Sugiko. It doesn’t matter what his reasons were. A person with any honor wouldn’t betray his friend’s trust.”
Akutagawa’s face was as harshly clenched as his voice. His eyes flashed, too, fixed on a point in space.
Takeda and Kotobuki both gaped at the sudden humorlessness.
I was flustered, too. What happened, Akutagawa?!
Just as things were starting to get uncomfortable, Tohko rested her hands on the table and leaned toward us.
“Oh, really! It’s only because upstanding men of honor have been tormented that thrilling literature was born. If Omiya were a womanizing playboy, he never would have sweated his correspondence with Sugiko. This scene is one of my favorites. Bring me one more block of tofu! No, make it three! Four! No, bring me everything you’ve got! With a heap of ginger on top! Like that?”
I pressed a hand to my forehead.
“That comparison is too obscure, Tohko.”
Akutagawa was flabbergasted, and Kotobuki and Takeda looked confused.
Tohko extended her right index finger, and wagging it back and forth, she cheerfully declared, “Heh-heh, well! To put it simply, it’s like you’re completely full, but you keep on eating anyway.”
“I don’t get it. But whatever, let’s move on. We’re running out of time.”
She craned back to look at the clock on the wall, and her eyes widened. “Oh no, you’re right! Let’s pick roles, then. Konoha should probably be Nojima, and maybe Akutagawa should be Omiya?”
“No, I can’t play the lead,” I answered immediately. I was under enough pressure just appearing in a play; there was no way I could do that.
“Hmm. I think that’s the obvious way to go, too.”
“Yeah. You and Akutagawa are the only boys we have, so don’t grumble and just do it.”
“You want me to be Nojima?” Akutagawa offered.
“You can’t do that! Omiya has that tall, handsome image. If Nojima is the cool one, it’s not convincing for Sugiko to fall for Omiya instead,” Takeda said sensibly. But wait—she was insulting me, wasn’t she?
Then Tohko spoke up in a bright voice.
“All right! As the president of the book club, I will take on the role of Nojima!”
“Oh wow, a beautiful woman dressed like a boy? Like a Takarazuka?”
Kotobuki and Takeda’s eyes were wide.
Akutagawa looked surprised, too, and my mind was reeling. Sure, with her impoverished chest, Tohko could dress like a man even without using binding, but…
“Trust me. The book girl will give a masterful rendition of Nojima. So you’ll be Omiya, right, Akutagawa?”
“Yes, if you want.”
“Great! Thanks! I wanted you to be in the play no matter what, so when you came, I thought I’d hit the jackpot.”
I couldn’t believe she’d said that to him. She had a dreamy smile on her face. Tohko was pretty assertive about it, but had she really wanted to secure the female audience at the culture fair that badly? Akutagawa gave her an uncomfortable, awkward, ambiguous smile.
“Okay, next is the heroine Sugiko.”
“Oh, oh! I nominate Nanase!!”
“Hey! Don’t say that, Takeda!”
Kotobuki was thrown off guard.
“I think you’d be perfect! I mean, Sugiko has to be someone that Nojima would fall in love with instantly!”
“B-but… I mean, I can’t act and…”
“Chia is right, Nanase. You would make an excellent Sugiko. You will do it, won’t you? Please?”
Tohko rested a hand on Kotobuki’s shoulder, and she choked, her face bright red. After stealing two or three quick glances at me, she answered in an embarrassed whisper, “O-okay…”
“You can do it, Kotobuki,” I said.
I was trying to be encouraging, but her reticence sharpened instantaneously. She turned away and emphatically declared, “The fact that I accepted the role has nothing to do with you, Inoue.”
After that, it was decided that Takeda would be Takeko, Sugiko’s friend and Omiya’s cousin, and that I would be Hayakawa, Nojima’s rival for Sugiko’s love. At first I was relieved, thinking I wouldn’t have a whole lot to do that way, but then Tohko sternly informed me that I would be writing the script.
“We need it by next Monday. I expect good things from you, Konoha.”
Monday is only five days away! She’s so rough on her underclassmen.
School was over.
I checked Friendship out of the library and went outside, where the walls of the school and the cherry trees on the campus were dyed by the brilliance of the setting sun. I felt the cold air of autumn on my cheek as I passed through the school gate, the gold and scarlet light flowing in like waves.
I saw Akutagawa a little ways ahead of me.
He’d stopped his bike next to a red mailbox and was standing ramrod straight on the verge of mailing a letter. His face was dyed in the rich evening light with a touch of tension and angst in it that brought me to a stop.
Akutagawa looked down at a long white envelope with melancholy eyes, frowning slightly.
He stood that way for a few moments, then dropped his letter into the mailbox and got on his bike.
“Akutagawa?” I called out and ran up to him. He turned to look at me with a hint of embarrassment on his face. “You’re heading home now, right?”
“Yeah. I just stopped by the team.”
Akutagawa got off his bike, and the two of us walked together down the sunset street.
There was something on my mind, and I decided to ask him about it.
“Are you really sure about appearing in the play? You shouldn’t let Tohko bother you, you know.”
His handsome face still turned away, Akutagawa murmured in a soft voice that crept into my heart.
“Sorry for worrying you. But when Tohko asked me to do the play, it made me want to try something different than I normally do. I was stressed out about all this stuff and felt really scattered, so actually I’m glad she asked.”
“Is this about your grades?”
His breath caught slightly.
I wasn’t sure if I should be asking about this. Trying not to overstep any boundaries, trying not to disrupt the delicate balance we had, I chose my words carefully, knowing I was taking a risk and unsure of myself, as if I was stepping onto thin ice.
“Are you sure there isn’t something else bothering you? Like girl problems? Or something?”
As soon as I said that, my heart rate increased, and I regretted it.
If he acted upset at all… But his expression didn’t change.
“Why would you think that?”
“Because girls are all over you. Do you have a girlfriend?”
I remembered Sarashina’s face. Her long silky hair, her spotless, gentle countenance, her frail voice.
Please, I want you to ask Kazushi if there’s another girl.
I didn’t think that Akutagawa was the type of guy who would cheat, but…
His voice was a little hard when he answered.
“Oh. That’s a surprise.”
“It shouldn’t be.”
Maybe he didn’t want me to know about Sarashina. Was he embarrassed? Or was there some other reason he couldn’t talk about it?
“What about you, Inoue?”
“Me? No. Unlike you, I’ve never even had a girl ask me out.”
“You and Amano seem pretty close. You’re not together?”
“Cut it out. That, at least, is never going to happen. I’m Tohko’s snack master—I mean, her gofer. She’s always ordering me around. She abuses her underclassmen. She’s a tyrant.”
I made that much clear.
“I see. Then what about—” He started to say something, then muttered, “Never mind.”
I wondered what he’d held back. What did he start to ask me?
“So what’s your type, Akutagawa?”
I tried a more roundabout approach this time. Akutagawa bowed his head thoughtfully.
“I don’t think I have a type, per se. But—”
He paused, and his eyes grew melancholy again.
“If a girl shows me a side of herself that surprises me, I’m hooked. Like if I see a girl who’s usually strong and willful crying when she’s alone.”
That sounded pretty specific for just an example. Akutagawa’s heart must have been touched by the tears of a strong-willed girl who seemed like she would never cry.
I suddenly recalled the vulnerability Kotobuki had shown when she was in the hospital.
She was always cold, so when her head was downcast and tears had filled her eyes, I’d been shaken. When I remembered the way she had looked in that moment, it made me a little nervous.
I doubted that Akutagawa had fallen for Kotobuki or anything like that, though.
But wait—Akutagawa’s girlfriend Sarashina wasn’t the strong, stubborn type, was she? Or maybe she looked quiet but was actually rambunctious like Tohko? If all you did was look at her, you would think Tohko was just a demure book girl, after all.
“And you? What’s your type?”
When he asked the question so suddenly, I was stuck for an answer.
There was no way I was going to open up about the dear girl I missed so much, who floated through my mind like a phantom. My chest felt like it was going to rip open.
“No clue,” I muttered, forcing a smile.
I hadn’t noticed the air growing dark and chilly, and our inky shadows bobbed across the lamp-lit asphalt. We started discussing harmless topics and then went our separate ways.
How many letters have I sent you now?
I got emotional in the letter I sent the other day and wrote some harsh things, which I regret.
I had forgotten that even now you’re in the midst of a long, painful battle. It must feel like everything in the world is out to get you, like everything is coming at you with weapons drawn. Over and over you were betrayed, you were hurt, and even your last wish was disrupted by the person closest to you. So you may firmly believe that you have not a single ally in the world.
Your indomitable will, your burning spirit—they come from your hatred and refusal of the world. I understand that now. And that the way you are now, that very hatred is a crutch you need to keep yourself standing.
But even so, I will not tolerate you turning your hateful looks on me. I wish to be your protector so greatly that it threatens to crack my heart. You may not believe me when I say that I have avoided seeing you. But I truly want to be a friend to you.
If you didn’t wish any dishonorable acts of me, I believe I would run joyously to your side.
So I wish you would be calm. I wish you would open your heart, just a little bit.
If I told you that I couldn’t sleep for fear that you might be crying, you would probably get angry and slap me.
Excerpted from Book Girl and the Captive Fool by Nomura, Mizuki Copyright © 2011 by Nomura, Mizuki. Excerpted by permission.
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