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Book Girl and the Scribe Who Faced God, Part 1
By Mizuki Nomura
OrbitCopyright © 2013 Mizuki Nomura
All rights reserved.
My President and My Girlfriend
"This poetry collection by Misuzu Kaneko is like cherry-leaf rice cakes. The coarse, gummy pink cake gently enfolds the sweet bean paste inside."
Tohko whispered with an ecstatic look on her face, gulping down the fragment of the page she'd ripped off.
She didn't even have to come to school right now because she was studying for her college exams, and yet she was casually eating books in the clubroom in February. I thought she was crazy, but Tohko had declared, "I passed my National Center Test, so I'll be fine! I have to take a little break anyway."
I don't know whether it was out of confidence or carelessness, but she started showing up at the clubroom.
And so, while she was waiting for the improv stories she snacked on to be done, she sat with her feet perched on a fold-up chair next to the window where she expounded on a book enthusiastically while flipping and munching and crunching through the pages of it.
"Misuzu Kaneko was a children's poet from Yamaguchi Prefecture, born on April 11, 1903—the thirty-sixth year of the Meiji emperor's reign. Her hometown was a port city with plentiful whaling where her family ran a bookstore. She got married and had kids, and she wrote poetry the whole time.
"Every one of her poems tastes free and relaxed and cute and gentle.
"When it comes to cherry-leaf rice cakes, you have the eastern style from Chomeiji Temple, where the bean paste is sandwiched inside a smooth cake, and the western style of Domyoji Temple, where a mealy cake is wrapped around the bean paste. I think Kaneko's poems are definitely mealy. When you bite through a salt-pickled cherry leaf and into the soft cake with cute little bumps in it, the leaf shatters, scattering the fragrance of cherry blossoms everywhere while your white teeth sink slowly into the cake to reach the faint sweetness of the beans! C'mon, you've heard this poem before, haven't you, Konoha?"
Tohko closed her eyes and recited the poem in a clear voice.
"Even when I spread my arms wide,
I cannot soar into the sky, not even for a second,
But the birds who can
Cannot run swiftly over the earth like I do.
"Even when I sway my body,
I cannot make a beautiful sound come out,
But the chirping sparrow
Does not know as many songs as I do.
"The sparrow, the birds, and me
: We are all different, and we are all special."
She opened her eyes, turned to me, and beamed rapturously.
"Isn't that great? 'We are all different, and we are all special.' This part is really, especially sweet and delicious!"
And so she crinkled through her meal, her eyes closed happily while she went on about "the beans cling to your tongue" or "it's sweet, but not too wordy; I could keep eating forever."
"Kaneko died at the age of twenty-six, but they say she was an incredibly serious person, very warm and kind. She suffered a lot of hardships. But her younger brother, the person who was closest to her, protected the notebooks in which she'd written her poems."
She hugged the book that had half its pages torn out of it. Just when I thought she was going to murmur how deeply moved she was, she looked back at me and hurried me on with a bubbly expression.
"Time's almost up, Konoha. Is my snack ready?"
"Here you go. You had the 'owl,' 'hot spring,' and 'accordion curtains,' right?"
I tore out the three lined pages of the improv story I'd just written and handed them over. Tohko reached out her alabaster hands and beamed even more.
"Thanks. Here goes!"
As her eyes fell exuberantly on the words, her delicate fingers carefully tore in from the edge of the paper. She brought the piece of paper to her lips and crunched her teeth into it.
"Once you finish that, you should go straight home and study."
"Geez. You shouldn't say things like that when your president was worried about her underclassman and came to see how he was doing. Ooh, this part's great!"
She had pouted her cheeks out to complain, but they stretched into a smile so easily.
"The owl's got stiff shoulders, so he's going to a hot spring to recuperate. And there are accordion curtains going all the way around the spring! It's so cute and fairy tale-ish. Like eating steamed buns that are still billowing with sweet steam. There's potatoes inside, all fluffy. Ahhh, and with a rustle of the accordion curtains, music begins to play."
With a chorus of sighs at how delicious everything was, her fingers tore into the page.
"Konoha, at first you'd write only weird stuff that didn't have any punctuation marks or that ended with someone suddenly falling down a manhole or getting a leg massage from a ghost, but you've really gotten good."
The earlier work had been purely to torment her, though. Tohko looked incredibly happy and grinned, taking one bite and then another.
"When are your exams again?"
"The middle of March. My last day of exams is still a long way off."
"That's not far away at all! That'll be over before you know it."
Had she forgotten how she'd washed out of the qualifying exam when she tried to take the test for Tokyo University during the first round of exams? She claimed she'd done that one for the memories, but she was being so reckless. How had her teachers not quit? No matter how I looked at it, it seemed likely she was going to fail. Was she so confident she'd pass for her top pick? No, she's just freewheeling and thoughtless.
"What schools are you planning to take exams for exactly?"
"That's a secret," Tohko answered blithely as she ate my story. "If I pass, then I'll tell you. You have to celebrate with me."
"How many years from now will that be?"
"You're so meeean. You think I'm going to fail! You don't have any faith in your president, do you?"
"How could anyone have faith in a president who makes her underclassman help her with summer homework?"
"That was just because I happened to run out of time! Fine. In that case I'm definitely going to pass and show you what I'm capable of."
She declared stalwartly. Then she popped a fragment of paper in her mouth, and her eyes instantly rolled back.
"Urk—s ... so spicy!!"
She flinched and covered her mouth with her hands as her eyes grew bleary.
"Wh-what is this? I was listening to elegant music at a hot spring, but now the accordion curtain opened and out came an owl spattered with blood. Whaaa—? Revenge? Wait—oh no! There're globs of lumpy mustard right in the middle of my steamed bunnnns! Ack, you're so mean! Evil! It's all lumpy and spicyyyy."
Fat tears spilled from her dark black eyes as she glared spitefully at me.
"Urrrgh ... it was a feint."
"But the shock went through your brain and you're all refreshed now, right?"
I said it with a smile, and Tohko whispered, "... I don't want a shock like that ..."
All of a sudden, our routine conversation made my heart twist.
As if I wanted to continue these meaningless talks in this tiny room filled by the gentle golden light before the sun set. It was an eerie feeling.
I looked at the clock on the wall and gasped.
"Sorry, I have to get going."
Tohko had thrown herself against the chair and shrunk into a blubbering ball, but when I started hurriedly packing up my mechanical pencil and notebook, she looked up.
"Are you meeting up with Nanase?"
"Wh—? ... Uh, I'm ..."
How come her intuition worked only for things like this?!
Although it was perfectly natural that Kotobuki and I would walk home together since we had started going out, having my president draw attention to it was no reason to stutter. Couldn't I just answer "yup" like a normal person?
And yet for some reason my voice squeaked. My heart was racing, my cheeks grew hot, and I was flustered, which made Tohko smile at me with kind, motherly eyes.
"Hurry up and go meet her. You shouldn't keep a girl waiting."
I picked up my bag and awkwardly slipped my arms into the sleeves of my jacket. It didn't go well since my fingers caught on the cuffs. Tohko watched my performance with a warm gaze. That made me even more self-conscious, and sweat beaded on my forehead.
"You should go home soon, too, Tohko."
She waved to me offhandedly, sitting with her knees drawn up on the fold-up chair, shrouded in the transparent gold of the western sun.
And her expression was bright, without the shadow of a cloud hanging over it ... but for some reason my heart ached.
There was a lingering haze over my mind, like a fog that refused to clear. I was convinced it was because Tohko wouldn't tell me anything important.
How had Tohko known the words that were written in Miu Inoue's first draft?
After the planetarium, I'd tried again and again to get it out of her. I'd tried catching her off guard or asking her flat out, but Tohko had only smiled softly at me and managed to change the subject somehow.
How had Tohko read the handwritten submission that I wasn't sure was even still at the publisher's office? And when?
Did it have anything to do with the fact that she wouldn't tell me what schools she wanted to get into, either?
Gah. I was just going in circles.
I furrowed my brow, then quickly smoothed it back out. I couldn't let Kotobuki see me looking like this.
She waited for me at the checkout desk in the library, which was dyed red by the setting sun. She had on a navy-blue peacoat, and a pink scarf was wound around her neck.
She was hugging her bag in her arms, her head bowed and a brooding look on her face. Then she looked up at me and an embarrassed smile broke over her face. Her pure, sparkling smile brightened my spirit, and a smile came naturally over my face.
"Sorry to keep you waiting. Let's go."
She gave a slight nod and stood up happily.
"It's almost Valentine's Day, you know. W-would you mind if I gave you chocolate?"
Kotobuki asked me this the next morning, staring at me, her face red.
It was still early, so there weren't that many people around. She lowered her voice to a whisper.
"And, uh ... would you hate it if it was homemade?"
"No way. That's fantastic."
When I answered, she grew slightly sheepish, then abruptly turned her face away and said, all in a panicked rush, "I-I make it every year for my dad, so I'd just throw yours in, too. Oh, but I'll use better ingredients and stuff than his, and I'll do a different design and everything. So I'm just gonna do it as part of his, but it's not totally the same. So, um—"
She really is such a girl. Once I got used to the blunt way she had of talking and her abrupt manner, her flustered reactions could be cuter than anything.
"I can't wait. Those cookies you baked me before were really good, too."
"I made those for everyone! You just happened to be there."
It really was sweet the way she was arguing it so heatedly, and I couldn't help but let a smile turn the corners of my mouth.
"D-did I say something funny?"
"But you're smiling at something."
Kotobuki pursed her lips and glowered at me. I was struck by an urge to see what would happen if I told her it had just occurred to me how cute she was. But just then there was a bright voice behind me.
"Morning, Nanase! Inoue!"
Nanase's friend Mori came up to us, beaming brilliantly.
"I heard you guys are going out. I-I-I saw you two walking home together yesterday, and things were looking good. I called Nanase afterward and forced her to come clean."
Kotobuki choked and grabbed Mori's hand.
Oblivious, Mori addressed me in a cheerful voice.
"Don't worry. I'll keep it quiet for a little while. Nanase's so gorgeous and popular, if the boys found out, you'd be in trouble."
I was definitely wondering just how long "a little while" was going to be. I didn't mean to hide that I'd started going out with Kotobuki, but I didn't want to purposefully spread the news around, either.
Mori bobbed her head reassuringly.
"Oh, I get it. When you keep a relationship hidden from everyone, it charges it up. So I won't tell anyone for now."
And how long was that going to be?
"Nanase's only so curt because she's shy. She's a really nice girl, so you take care of her. You can ask me anything, like her favorite color or her favorite food, or where she likes to go on a date, or what kind of situations drive her wild, or whatever."
I was sure Mori had good intentions. But hearing her say all this stuff to my face was pretty embarrassing.
"M-Mori! Get over here."
Kotobuki wrapped both her hands around Mori's arm and dragged her to a corner of the classroom.
"Whoa, whoa, what's wrong, Nanase?"
"Just come with me."
And so she dragged her off. I watched them and saw Kotobuki's eyebrows hike way up, yelling at Mori energetically. Mori was smiling and reassuring her. It looked like girls had it tough with their relationships, too.
"Morning, Inoue. Why are you frowning?"
I turned around and found Akutagawa standing there.
"Morning. It's nothing major. Just thinking how much girls seem to love secrets."
He looked in the direction I'd been facing and saw Kotobuki and Mori discussing (?) something at length. He nodded in sympathy.
"Well, if that's all it is."
Then his eyes softened teasingly.
"Things are going well with Kotobuki, huh?"
"Well, then. The guys are crazy about her, though, so you better prepare yourself for when the news gets out. They're going to hate you."
"Urk. You're probably right."
"Well, that's the problem with having something nice."
Then Akutagawa told me about how he had gone to the hospital to visit Miu yesterday. Apparently she was working hard and getting progressively better. She might be able to leave the hospital sometime in the spring. Of course, she'd have to go back to the hospital for physical therapy, and there was still the issue of which of her parents she was going to live with.
"I think she wants to rent a place and live on her own. She was telling me she wanted to start studying again, even if she had to go to night school or online classes. She's in negotiations with her folks right now. I'm sure it's difficult for her, but I hope I can be of some help to her."
"Wow ... Miu's really doing a lot, huh?"
When I listened to him talk about Miu, I felt a faint pain. An ache as if the scars that lingered on my heart were being pressed by a finger. But stronger than that was my joy because Miu was facing the future and moving toward it. Warm feelings welled up in me.
"Tell her if there's anything I can do, just ask."
With a placid smile, Akutagawa nodded and said, "Will do."
Then he drew his eyebrows together and his face turned suddenly sour.
"Actually, I'm against her getting a place. A young girl living on her own has a lot of issues to deal with. And there are a lot of good-for-nothing guys like Sakurai out there."
His voice was prickly. It was strange to see Akutagawa expressing so much displeasure for another person.
"Ryuto didn't come to see her again, did he?"
My question made Akutagawa's face twist even more with jealousy.
"Yeah, he did. This weekend he came with some outrageous bouquet he said a girl at a florist's just gave to him. Asakura looked irritated, but he kept chattering at her, totally oblivious. Finally he told her that she fits his style and tried to convince her to go out with him."
"What?! Ryuto's going out with Takeda!"
Just the other day, I'd seen him with his elbows on the checkout desk in the library, talking to Takeda. I'd been flabbergasted by that.
Ryuto must have worked the head librarian over somehow because he'd started brazenly visiting the library. He wore a jacket over his uniform, so I guess he hadn't been exposed as belonging to another school yet, but he stood out anyway because he was tall and his features and the aura he gave off were both so dazzling.
The girls would whisper: "Y'know, I've been seeing that guy a lot lately. I wonder what year he's in. He's sooo hot." "Maybe we should say something to him." "But that girl at the desk looks like she's his girlfriend." That just made me even more nervous.
With an incorrigible smile, Ryuto had said, "Well, I'm goin' out with Chee an' all. If you like a girl, you wanna see her every day."
And then to ask Miu if she wanted to go out—he hadn't changed at all! What about Takeda?
Excerpted from Book Girl and the Scribe Who Faced God, Part 1 by Mizuki Nomura. Copyright © 2013 Mizuki Nomura. Excerpted by permission of Orbit.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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