Ascendance of a Bookworm – 013
Gossip: My Savior
My name is Lutz . I’m five years old . I’m the youngest out of the four kids in my family . My older brothers are Zasha, Zeke, and Ralph .
I woke up this morning to a few faint rays of sunlight flickering through the cracks in our shutters . After days of a raging snowstorm, the sunlight is amazing in a big way .
It cleared up!!
Not caring at all about how cold the bedroom would get, I spontaneously throw open the shutters so I can look outside . The sky is a stunning blue, completely empty of clouds, and the reflection of the sunlight across the snowdrifts make the entire city sparkle .
Clear days like this are extremely rare, so when they happen both the adults and children immediately head out to the forest . Missing the rush is really bad . I close the window and hurry to the kitchen .
“Lutz, hurry up!” says Ralph .
Ralph has already finished eating, and is now clattering around trying to get ready . I warm up some hard rye bread1 and eat it while dipping it in milk . As soon as I finish, I run to get dressed . Today is a perfect day for foraging . In order to harvest paru, which can only be found during the winter, everyone in the city rushes out to the forest on clear days like this . If you want to get enough for yourself, you absolutely can’t be last to arrive . Throughout the year, there aren’t very many opportunities to taste something so sweet, so everyone’s absolutely hoping they can get any, whether it’s a lot or even just one .
Today, I’m not just going with Ralph . Our older brothers Zasha and Zeke, who usually are working at their apprenticeships, are coming with us today . With four of us foraging, we’re definitely going to find a lot . The four of us strap boxes and bags to our backs and take off running . We dash down the stairs and out of the house . Our mother’s already outside at the water well, and she waves at us as we run past .
“You’re heading to the forest now? Be careful, don’t overdo it!”
My mother is, as usual, gossiping with the neighbors by the well . It’s really admirable how she’s still able to these long conversations, even in the middle of this frigid winter . One of the women chatting around the well is Maine and Tory’s mother . Both of our mothers are really good friends, so us kids were also always really close to each other .
“Tory and her father have already gone, you know?” she says . “Maybe if you hurry you can catch up?”
She didn’t mention Maine’s name . Probably, Maine is helping to watch the house . On days like this, she usually stays in bed instead of coming outside . Now that I think about it, she collapsed in the cart on pig-slaughtering day, just like last year . Last year, they brought her along even though she had a fever, but this year she’d seemed pretty healthy . She missed out on fresh sausage two years in a row now… I feel bad for her .
Maine’s so tiny, frail, cute, and unreliable that I think of her like a little sister even though we’re the same age . That reminds me, she had a weird request for some grass stalks while we were preparing for the winter . I wonder what that was about?
“Zeke! Check that tree!” says Zasha .
By the time we arrive at the forest, the paru hunt has already begun . Deep in the snow-bound forest lies a sweet flavor that can’t be harvested except on extremely clear days . The eyes of every single person here are filled with a strange zeal .
Zeke runs towards the tree Zasha points him towards and starts to clamber up it . The rest of us start working to build a fire a little ways away from the tree . We shovel the snow away from a patch of ground, then ignite the firewood we brought with us . I glance over and see that Zeke has decided on the fruit he wants to harvest .
“Lutz, get ready to start climbing,” says Zeke .
I climb up the paru tree to the fruit that Zeke’s picked out . Paru trees are magical . It’s so white that it looks like it’s made out of ice and snow . It has many branches, so it’s easy to climb, but the fruits it produces are very close to the top . If this were a normal tree, I’d use a knife to cut the fruit free, but you can’t use knives to harvest paru fruit . This is the most dangerous part .
“Lutz, you ready?” asks Zeke .
“One moment,” I reply .
I shift over until I’m right behind him, then quickly pull off my gloves . I grab tightly onto the long, slender branch that holds the fruit that Zeke’s been working on .
“Ahhh, that’s freezing,” says Zeke . “It’s up to you now . I think it’s almost done, though . ”
“Yeah, okay!” I say .
Zeke lets go and climbs down the tree . The stem that I’m gripping onto is freezing cold, just like ice, and the air itself is frigid . In an instant, all the heat in my hands starts to drain away .
In order to pick a paru fruit, you have to heat up the branch that it’s connected to until it goes soft and limp . However, you absolutely can’t use fire under the tree, because the tree’s magic immediately puts it out . So, you have to use the heat from your hands in order to warm it up . Bit by bit, the branch I’m holding onto starts to grow limp . The fruit, however, still hasn’t fallen .
Still not done yet? How long is “almost done”, Zeke?
I start to lose feeling in my hands, a painful numbness prickling through them . Right when the thought that I should switch out crosses my mind, the branch I’m sitting on suddenly bends a little bit .
“Hey, Lutz, let’s switch,” says Zasha, from behind me .
“It just needs a little bit more,” I tell him . “Hey, Ralph! It’s about to fall!”
As soon as Zasha grabs hold of the branch, the fruit pops off with a wet noise and starts to fall . Zasha’s hands are far warmer than mine are after having held onto the branch for so long . The fruit, about the size of my face, falls straight down to the ground below .
“Go warm up quickly . Your hands are briiight red!”
“Yeah,” I reply .
Zasha starts looking for the next fruit and moves to a different branch . I immediately put my gloves back on, then climb back down the tree, being extra careful not to fall . I run over to the fire immediately, throw off my gloves, and hold my hands above the brilliantly burning fire to warm them up . As I rub my hands together over and over by the fire, feeling slowly prickles back into my hands .
“I’m gonna throw it! …Rrragh!!”
Ralph has found the fallen fruit and is brandishing it triumphantly . With a huge swing, he throws it towards Zeke, then starts climbing up the tree to go relieve Zasha . Zeke picks up the fruit and puts it in a basket . Paru fruit are like huge clumps of ice when they’re out in the cold, so you can be as rough with them as you want .
“Whoa, cold…, Zeke, switch with me . ”
Zasha has been warming his hands by the fire, but now it’s Zeke’s turn to throw off his gloves and rub his hands together in the fire’s warmth while Zasha goes back to the tree . Harvesting paru is a job that requires a lot of teamwork: the more people you have with warm hands, the better luck you’ll have .
Alternating back and forth like this, we gather five fruits .
“It’s getting pretty limp,” says Zeke as I switch out with him .
“Got it . ”
Our sixth fruit was just about to fall when the afternoon sun started to shine into the forest from high above . The leaves of the paru tree sparkle brilliantly in the light, and the tree starts to rustle despite the lack of wind, as if it had a will of its own .
“Oh no! Get down quick, Lutz!”
The instant I heard my brothers call out, the branch beneath me starts to violently shake . I had been leaning forward just a bit to grab onto another branch, so I lose my footing entirely as the branch bucks under me . With one hand, I cling desperately to the branch I had been holding onto, dangling in mid-air .
I reach up with my other hand and grab tightly onto the branch, trying to stop myself from falling .
“No, don’t, Lutz! Let go! Get down from there now!”
As soon as I started to let go, the branch suddenly went limp, warmed by the heat from both my hands . With a crack, it snaps off . The paru fruit and I plummet towards the ground .
The ground beneath the tree is covered in deep, deep snow, and since I was falling feet first after having been dangling from the tree, I land without any serious injury . Around us, other people are jumping out of the other paru trees scattered here and there .
The time for gathering is over .
The trees shine brilliantly in the light, their countless leaves rustling loudly . They stretch skyward, growing taller as if they’re chasing after the light . Soon, they tower over even the thickest, fullest trees in the forest . Despite there still not being any wind, their branches whip through the air, almost like a woman’s long hair swirls around her as she shakes her head . The unpicked paru fruit fly off in all directions as their branches flick about in the shimmering light .
As soon as the fruit all fly off, the paru trees start shrinking as if they’re melting away, and soon vanish into nothingness . Unlike any other tree in the forest, these are magic trees, which can only be found on clear days in the middle of the winter .
“It’s over . ”
“Let’s go home . ”
Everyone gathers up their bags full of paru fruit and heads for home . Every household is going to spend the whole afternoon working on processing the fruit that they gathered . It’s hard, heavy work, but it’s still kind of fun .
“First off, let’s split these up . ”
Now that it’s in the house, the fruit that was about the size of my face has gotten a little smaller and rounder now that its rind is melting away .
“Can you handle getting the bowl ready?”
We light the tip of a small stick on fire using the stove, then press it into the shell of the paru fruit . With a sharp crack, the skin just in that area splits open a little bit, and a milky white juice starts welling up through it . An amazingly sweet smell drifts out to fill the house, and I gulp as my mouth starts to water . So that we don’t lose a single drop of the juice, we’ve placed the fruit in a bowl .
This juice, and its sweet, sweet flavor, is extremely precious . I want to do nothing more than drink it all down in one go, but I’ve decided that I’m going to pace myself very, very carefully . For now, all I can do is swallow my saliva as my mouth keeps watering .
Once we’ve drained out all the juice from inside, the next step is to crush the fruit and extract all the oil from it . Paru oil can be used both for cooking and for fueling lamps, which makes these fruits extremely welcome in the middle of the winter . Once we’ve pressed all of the oil out, the remains of the fruit are very dry . Once they finish drying, they’re not really suitable for people to eat, but it makes for an excellent, nutritious feed for our chickens . Even better, it causes the flavor of the eggs to change a lot, which I’m also always happy for .
“May we come in?”
“Sorry to bother you…”
For a couple of days after that, we’ve had people constantly coming by, hoping to trade the dried-out fruit remains for eggs from our chickens . From my perspective, I don’t know what I’m going to do when we’ve traded everything away for chicken feed . The chickens will be very happy about this, but all of the eggs that I could have actually eaten are vanishing, right before my eyes .
Please, don’t bring us any more chicken feed . Bring me meat! While my older brothers tend to split the eggs evenly among us, they hog all the meat and I barely get any of it .
As I was contemplating my pending starvation, Maine and Tory come in, carrying with them some more fruit scraps . Inside their rough nilen bags are about two fruits’ worth of scraps .
“Lutz,” says Maine with an enormous smile as she holds out her bag in front of her, “can we trade these for some eggs?”
I really don’t want to, but my mother would be furious if I turned them away .
“We kinda already have enough chicken feed… do you maybe have any meat?”
“My older brothers eat all of it, so I don’t really get any for myself . ”
During the winter, everyone is home nearly all the time, so my food winds up getting stolen from me a lot and I usually wind up staying hungry . I know that Tory and Maine can’t really do anything about it, but I let my frustration slip out anyway .
Tory gives a wry smile . “You’re not as strong as your brothers, so course they’re gonna steal from you,” she jokes, brushing past my dissatisfaction .
Maine, for some entirely unknown reason, shoves the bag right towards my face . “Hey, Lutz, why not eat this?”
“How the hell am I going to eat chicken feed?!”
I am completely blindsided by the fact that Maine, who I always treat so nicely, just suddenly told me to eat chicken feed . The sheer shock of it caused me to reflexively yell out, but Maine just stands there with a blank look on her face, head tilted to one side .
“…I guess it depends on how you cook it?”
“The fruit’s been squeezed totally dry, so you can’t eat it . It’s probably still tasty, though, so even these dried-out bits will be fine to eat if we just cook them right . ”
Maine is saying these completely unbelievable things with a perfectly straight face . I instinctively glance over at Tory to see what her reaction is . There can’t be anyone who’d eat chicken feed . Tory, however, gives me a tired, worn-out smile and shrugs her shoulders a little bit . For some reason, Maine really does seem to want to eat paru fruit .
“You…! Do you know how wasteful it is to eat a paru?! You don’t just eat it, you squeeze out its juice and its oil and then give the rest to the chickens!! There’s no way that we’re just going to waste it by eating it!”
I don’t think there’s a single person in this house that lacks enough propriety that they’d turn to eating bird food . On top of that, taking something that we worked so hard to get and just eating it without making full use of it is unbelievable! I don’t think there’s a single person in this entire city who’d think of that except for Maine .
“Ummm… if you were going to give it to the chickens that would be okay, but you just said you have enough bird food, right? It’ll be okay to use this to fill us up instead, then . ”
“Like I’m trying to say, people can’t eat something that’s so dried out!”
“It only turned into something people can’t eat after all of the juice and oil was squeezed out of it . If we put some effort into it, we can definitely make it edible again!”
My strength leaves me . Maine is saying such unbelievable things with such an earnestly smiling face! What’s this feeling? I feel like I’m not going to convince her no matter what I try to say . Is this helpless sort of feeling what they call a sense of defeat?
“Hey, Lutz,” says Tory, quietly . Now would have been the perfect time for her to remind her sister that bird food isn’t something that humans can eat, but instead she weakly hangs her head . “It’s kinda hard to believe,” she says, “but you really can make it edible . …I was even really shocked when I found out how good it was . ”
Eh? Seriously? She made you eat bird food, Tory?!
Somehow, Maine has already demonstrated this working in her own home . I see now, I guess I’m just arguing off of my own self-confidence, huh .
“Let’s try it out real quick, okay? Lutz, do you have any paru juice left over?”
As she talks, she puts some of the dried-out remains in a little bowl . She adds about two teaspoons’ worth of my share of the fruit juice, then blends it all together . She scoops some up onto her finger and sticks it into her mouth, then nods to herself in satisfaction .
“Open wide, Lutz!”
Not only is my precious fruit juice being used for this, but I’m about to be fed bird food . I think this is probably going to be terrible, but after seeing Maine taste it as if it were a completely ordinary thing to do, I hesitantly open my mouth . She scoops up a bunch of the yellow stuff onto her fingertip and puts it in my mouth . As I close my mouth again, a sweet flavor radiates through it .
Only a little bit of juice went into this, but it’s still so sweet and it doesn’t feel dried-out at all . Every year, I stretch out my share of the juice for as long as I can by drinking only just enough for me to taste it, but if I blend it with the leftovers from the squeezing, I guess I could eat a lot more sweet stuff, right?
“It really is sweet, see?” says Maine, chuckling to herself triumphantly . My older brothers, who had been looking on suspiciously from a distance, simultaneously jump in on us .
“It’s really sweet?”
“Seriously? Lemme try, Lutz . ”
All three of them charge forward, fingers outstretched, ready to scoop into the little bowl . I try to run away so that they can’t grab onto it, but with such a big difference in physique between us, I can’t escape . I can’t even dodge!
“Hey, let go! Stop pulling! Are older brothers only good for stealing their younger brother’s stuff?”
“My little brother’s things are my things!”
“Sweet things should be shared with everyone . ”
“Ah-HA! Got it!”
I struggle in vain to resist the three of them, but they yank the bowl out of my reach . They take turns scooping the mix out of the bowl with their fingers . “Aaaaa!! My paru!!” I wail, but they completely ignore me . Soon, the bowl is completely empty .
“Whoa, tasty . ”
“This was bird food, right?”
Just like mine did, all of their eyes go wide with disbelief, and they look over at Maine . She quickly looks to the side, shying away from all of the attention, but then says something even more unbelievable .
“Lutz, since we’re at your house, I can make it even better . ”
“Seriously?!” shout all of us, simultaneously .
It’s completely natural for us to react like that . We’re all growing boys with healthy appetites, after all . Zasha, in particular, is the oldest, and he’s always saying there’s never enough food . Even if it is made from bird food, we are all extremely eager to have another tasty thing to eat .
“…Oh, although, I can’t do it if you guys don’t help . …I’m not very strong . ”
“Alright, leave it to me!” I reply . It’s immediately obvious that Maine is frail and weak . If she needs our help to make us something delicious, I will help with all of my might!
“Lutz, don’t hog her attention . Let me help too, Maine, I’m way stronger than Lutz is . ”
“Yeah, okay!” she says .
Suddenly, all of my brothers want to cooperate . I’m left wondering when it will ever be my turn for anything, but Maine looks absolutely delighted as she starts giving us orders .
“Okay, hmm . You two older brothers get a griddle ready on the stove . Lutz, you do the prep work, Ralph, you’re in charge of mixing . Ah, also, it would be really mean for everyone to only use Lutz’s juice, so everyone needs to share theirs! Come on, chip in, chip in . ”
She claps her hands in a very mother-like fashion as she urges my older brothers on . Right now, Maine looks like an angel to me . With a single word, she saved me from having to give up all of my juice by myself .
“Lutz, get me two teaspoons of milk . Ralph, grab that spatula and start stirring this, please . ”
Even though Maine is usually a huge hindrance, right now she’s looking extremely lively as she fires off instruction after instruction while everyone is moving around her . Zasha and Zeke have dragged the griddle on top of the stove and are working on getting it fired up . Ralph, spatula in hand, is vigorously mixing things together as Maine adds them into the bowl . I’m running here and there on Maine’s instructions, picking up the various things she says we need .
“Right, this is looking good . Next, do you have any butter?”
I run and get it for her . She uses a small spoon to take off a chunk of it, then climbs up on a chair next to the stove and slides it onto the griddle . Every one of our hearts skip a beat when they see what a precarious position she’s in, but she doesn’t seem to notice at all .
The butter on the griddle sizzles loudly as it shrinks away . A delicious scent fills the room, and I’m suddenly acutely aware of how hungry I’ve been getting . Maine reaches into the bowl Ralph’s been stirring with a larger spoon, and drops a spoonful of thick, muddy batter on top of the melted butter . As the batter hisses over the fire, the sweet scent of paru mingles with the savoriness of the butter, and I’m almost overwhelmed . What she’s making looks kind of like the potato pancakes my mother makes, but the scent is totally different .
“Alright, its your turns, make them like that, please,” she says .
After demonstrating how to make one, she passes off the cooking duties to my older brothers, who do not need a chair to reach the stove . Maine, from atop her chair, continues to give directions . That’s fine, though . We understood what we had to do as soon as she showed us, and making her wobble on top of such a tall chair would be too much for us to do . Since it’s way less dangerous for us to do the cooking, my older brothers immediately take her spoon and get to work .
“When the bubbles start to rise like that, that side’s done . Start flipping them over, please!”
“Got it!” says Zasha .
At Maine’s direction, he scoops them up with a spatula, one by one, and neatly flips them over, showing that the underside is now a wonderfully cooked brown . They look so good that I almost start drooling .
“Alright, take then off, put then over there, and start more cooking in their place . ”
We gather up the finished things and put them to the side, then drop more butter and batter onto the pan . Whenever Maine said they were ready, we flipped them over and moved them to the plates .
Maine holds the first plate we finished with triumphantly, a huge smile on her face . “Voila!‘Simple bean curd hotcakes!’”2
I actually have no idea what she just said . I don’t really know how I’m supposed to react, so I tilt my head to the side .
“…Huh? What did you say?”
“Um…,” she says, blinking in surprise . Her face scrunches up for a moment, as if she’s searching for the right words . “The basic parucakes are ready!”3
Steam wafts up from the plates of parucakes lined up along the table . I want to dig into them immediately .
“They’re hot, so be careful! Please, enjoy your meal~!”
Slowly, I take a bite . Shockingly, they’re even more delicious than I thought they were going to be . They’re light and fluffy, and don’t have even a trace of the dryness of bird food . Unlike potato pancakes, these are extremely sweet, even without adding any jam .
On top of that, since they’re stacked on each person’s dish one at a time, I don’t have to worry about my brothers taking them all!
“Hey, Lutz . If you make these, do you think you’ll be able to fill yourself up easily?”
“I do! Wow, Maine, you’re amazing . ”
Since people keep coming over wanting to trade for eggs, we have a lot of paru leftovers . Our chickens make plenty of eggs for us, and if we can trade some of those for milk, then we should be able to have parucakes all through the winter .
“I’ve got some other ideas about how to cook the squeezed-out paru,” says Maine, “but I don’t have the strength to do them myself . ”
“If you show us how to do it, we’ll make it for you!”
After that, Maine continued to come over and imprint on us new ways to cook delicious things every time the weather cleared up and we went to collect more paru . Thanks to Maine teaching us how to cook, I rarely went hungry that winter .
Maine is my savior, but she’s also very weak, so I want to help her any way I can .
I couldn’t have noticed at the time, I was so immersed in the joy of parucakes, but this would become a huge influence in my life .
Translator’s notes for this chapter:
1 . Everything has fantasy names in this series (like “nilen” being the stand-in for “linen”), so it’s not literally “rye bread” . However, the word used here is 黒パン (lit . “black bread”), which refers to rye bread without actually calling it rye . If we ever learn the in-universe name for rye, I’ll update this . 2 . Specifically, the bean curd she’s referring to is okara, which is what’s left of a soybean after you make soy milk or tofu . It’s frequently used as animal feed, but is used in a lot of East Asian cuisine . It’s dry and tasteless ordinarily, but you can make it into porridge or add it to baked goods . 3 . She swapped out the n in pancake パンケーキ for a ru パルケーキ .