Ascendance of a Bookworm – 014
It seems that, in this town, whenever the weather clears up during the winter everyone always goes out to pick paru . Last time this happened, my father had a day off from work, so he went to go pick paru with Tory, but today he’s busy with his job . As I started wondering if that meant that we were going to give up on paru after all, I noticed my mother gathering up her coat .
“I’m going to be going with Tory today,” she says .
Paru are valuable winter fruit, To my eye, they’re a fruit that contains a syrupy coconut milk, olive oil, and a sweet-ish sort of bean curd . Since I figured out that the remains of the fruit after all of the oil has been squeezed out can be used as a good substitute for bean curd, I’ve been able to expand the house’s menu a little bit . Thanks to that, it looks like my mother’s been increasingly motivated lately .
The bean curd hotcakes I made the other day at Lutz’s house were the first sweets I’ve had in ages . Lutz’s family raises chickens in their house, so they have a lot of eggs for trade, which means they have access to a ready supply of milk . I’m envious . Between the abundance of ingredients and the extra manpower that all the boys provide, it’s way easier to cook at Lutz’s house . The bean curd hotcakes… ah, I called them parucakes, didn’t I? The parucakes left everyone deeply moved, and I was able to use paru oil, egg yolk, and a pinch of salt to make mayonnaise . With that and some more salt for seasoning, I was able to make something kind of like a potato salad, which also quickly became very popular .
…It looks like my reincarnation has made Lutz’s and his brother’s lives better, at least .
There’s so many ways to use a paru that I want to get as many of them here in my house as I can . Unfortunately, I’m absolutely useless on any sort of trip, but I still want to cheer everyone on if I can .
Tory, fight! Fight! Mother, win! Win!!
However, when Tory and my mother head for the forest, there’s still the problem of what to do with me . In any case, I have no strength, I’m sickly, and I’m worse than useless . There’s literally zero way that I can make a trip into the forest in the dead of winter . To make things worse, they seem to think that I might get up to some sort of trouble if they leave my at home by myself, so it seems they absolutely can’t leave me to watch the house .
Isn’t that kind of mean?
My father eats his breakfast, pondering deeply, as he gets ready for work . Suddenly, he claps his hands together .
“I’ve got it! Maine, how about you come with me to the gates today?”
I’d go with my father to the gate . Tory and my mother would go to the forest to gather paru . Then, on their way back, they’d pick me up from the gate . If they do that, the two of them can go pick fruit without worrying about me, and I won’t be left home alone .
“Ah, that’s a good idea,” says my mother . “Let’s do that! Tory, let’s head out . We’ll leave Maine with your father today . ”
“Okay!” says Tory . ”Maine, we’ll come by and pick you up later . ”
As my mother praises my father for his good idea, she gathers up everything she needs in the blink of an eye and leads Tory out of the house . Paru gathering seems to be something that only happens before noon, so it’s critical that everyone gets there as soon as possible . This is probably because everyone snaps all the fruit up in a heartbeat . It is such a delicious and useful fruit, after all .
“Well then, shall we head to the gates?”
Being baby-sat at the gates, huh… Well, it’s a change of pace from being here in the house all the time . If Otto’s there, then I can probably get him to teach me some new letters, too…
Frankly, I am starting to get really tired of being inside this house . Ever since I failed at making pseudo-papyrus, I have been reduced to only being able to do one of two things: play with the slate and make baskets . I never could have thought that, without books, I would have so much free time and so little idea of what to do with it .
By the way, lately, I’ve had “Come, Spring!”1 and “Radio Calisthenics”2 playing in my head . Until spring finally comes around, I can’t go outside and I can’t work on making my clay tablets .
Also, I’ve started doing radio calisthenics every morning so that I can build up enough strength to start going outside . My family has been looking at me strangely, but I think that it’s very important for me to do everything I can to get in better shape . To be painfully honest, my physical condition wasn’t something I really paid much attention to back in Japan, so I don’t know exactly where I should be starting from in my exercises .
“Oh, Daddy . Is Otto going to be there today?”
“Ahh, I think so?”
Now I’m actually looking forward to being baby-sat at the gates . I cheerfully go about my own preparations . Since I’m going out, I’ll need to bring my slate . I layer on my clothes and pull on my coat, then I slide the slate into the tote bag I wove earlier this winter . With that, I’m ready to go .
“Let’s go, Daddy!”
“…Maine, you really like Otto a lot, don’t you?”
“Yeah! I love him,” I reply .
After all, he gave me this slate to help me learn the alphabet, and he’s my teacher (or so I’ve unilaterally decided) . Wouldn’t it be impossible for me not to like him? Honestly, I probably like him more then I like my father . In the interest of maintaining harmonious human relations, though, I clamp my mouth closed so that I don’t actually say that last bit .
“Cold!” I exclaim, as we step outside .
The air itself is frigid . The faintest of winds is blowing, and that alone is enough to cause a painful chill to cut straight through to my bones . My face is tingling so intensely that, even despite my laziness, I’m thinking that I’m going to have to figure out how to make some kind of moisturizing cream out of some of the paru oil we get today .
On top of that, the snow is so deep that I can barely walk . There’s probably some knack to walking on top of snow, but I didn’t grow up in a snowy part of the country so I don’t know it . After only two steps, my tiny child legs were stuck deep in the snow, and I couldn’t move them no matter what I tried . I have no idea what to do next .
“Daaaaddy! How do I walk in this?”
My father turns around, a startled expression on his face, and walks back towards me, his arms out to the sides for balance as his legs sink into the snow . “…It’s okay, I got you,” he says . He hangs my tote bag from his wrist, then picks me up by my sides, lifts me up high, and deposits me on his shoulders . “Be careful not to fall!”
“Whoa… so high!”
I’m way higher up than I was before, even when Ralph carried me on his shoulders . I don’t, however, feel like I’m in any danger of falling . My father, the soldier, has broad, firm shoulders, providing both a sense of stability and a sense of security . He’s very different from my other father, who I think was a salaryman in a sales department .
“Hold on as tight as you can, okay?”
It’s been a long time since I rode piggyback, so I’m a little bit excited . I cling tightly to my father’s head as he starts trudging through the snow . There’s a narrow pathway cut through the snow, but it doesn’t seem to have been made with a shovel . Instead, it looks like it was made by people carefully following in each other’s footsteps, one by one, as they left for the main street .
“Maine, you should know, Otto’s already married . ”
We had been walking in silence for a while when those words suddenly tumbled out of his mouth . He seems to have been considering what to say for a while .
Huh? Did I… say something about wanting to marry him at some point? I know I didn’t say anything about wanting to marry my father, though .
“Ummmm… so, what?”
“Well, Otto’s the kind of man who doesn’t think of anyone but his wife . ”
What kind of parent uses this kind of diversion on his five-year-old daughter, you idiot? Would it be okay if I played the straight man and smacked him on the head now?
“Okay, but what’s wrong?”
Argh, really?! Now you go quiet? You’re such a pain! I’m not going to play along, father . Do you really think that I’m going to say something like “but Daddy you’re so much more amazing” or “but Daddy I love you so much more” right now?
“Oh,” I say, “are you saying that since Otto is the kind of man who loves his wife so much, he’s really amazing?”
“…No . ”
Sulking fiercely, my father continues trudging forward in silence . After some time, we finally arrive at the gate, me still riding atop the shoulders of my troublesome father .
“Good morning, sir,” says the soldier stationed at the gate, bowing his head for some strange reason . After a moment, I remember that bowing your head in greeting is one of the social customs here . Then, he bows his head again, maybe for me, perched on top of my father’s shoulders .
“Lihit,” says my father, “this is my daughter Maine . I’ll be leaving her in the night duty room until the afternoon, when her mother comes to get her on her way back from picking paru . ”
“Understood, sir . ”
“Maine, go to the night duty room . Otto’s in there, so that’ll be fine, right?”
Whoaaa, that sounded almost petulant . Huh? Maybe… is my father so jealous of Otto that he’s getting childish? Are human relations breaking down here?
“I’m only really looking forward to learning some new letters from him, you know,” I say .
“…You don’t need Otto for that . ”
Sorry, Otto . I tried to smooth things over, but I think I might have only made it wose .
At the beginning of this whole mess, I really was only excited about learning new letters, but I have no idea where my father’s thoughts have been wandering to .
“I’m coming in,” says my father, knocking on the door to the night duty room as he opens it and walks in . The night room is lit by both a brilliantly glowing fire in the fireplace and a lamp shining on a desk . It’s way brighter than it is back home . Otto is sitting at a desk close to the fire, filling out paperwork .
“Otto!” I say .
“Corporal… and Maine? Why’s she here?”
“She’ll be staying here while her mother’s gathering paru . Take care of her . ”
He tersely… no, sharply explains the situation while he lowers me down from his shoulders . Otto’s eyes go wide and he glances back and forth between his pile of paperwork and my father . Clearly, he’s been shaken by having being abruptly ordered to be a babysitter .
“Huh? Umm, but, I… need to finish the budget and the financial report…”
“Maine,” says my father, completely ignoring Otto’s protests, “it’s warm in here . Stay here and take care not to catch a cold . ”
“Yes, Daddy!” I wave goodbye to him as he leaves the room .
I turn towards Otto . “I’m sorry, Otto . ”
“You know, I was super happy when you gave me the slate, and I’m even more happy that I get to see you again . ”
“Oh, that’s good . I’m also happy to see you again, but…”
He gives me a bit of an awkward smile, then looks a little confused, as if he’s wondering why I needed to apologize for that .
“I was kinda praising you earlier, and my daddy started to sulk . ”
“I’ll be really quiet until my mommy comes and picks me up, so could you teach me some new letters?”
From the parchment and ink that’s spread out on top of the desk, it’s obvious that he was in the middle of working through some paperwork . I don’t want to be too much of a hindrance, but I’m not going to let this chance to learn more letters slip away .
“Sure, why not? Since it’s you, Maine, I know you’ll practice quietly…”
I quickly take out my slate . The slate pencil clacks against the surface as Otto writes out new letters, mumbling to himself . At this point, I’ve lost count of the many hours I spent playing with it by myself, so by now I feel a strange sense of confidence .
“Maine, if you get another fever, your father’s going to be even more upset than he is now, so sit over here . ”
With a wry smile, he shuffles his things over, giving me his seat in front of the fireplace . I completely agree with his reasoning, so I don’t restrain myself too much as I sit myself down .
“Thank you! I can definitely practice here . ”
These letters seem to be part of an alphabet . It’s not a syllabic script like hiragana, or an logographic system like kanji . This feels like an alphabet where both pronunciation and meaning change depending on how you spell things . 3
For a while, the room was quiet, with only the clacking sound of pencil on slate and the scratching sound of pen on parchment breaking through the stillness .
When I feel like I’ve memorized the letters in front of me, I look up from my slate . Otto is looking at his parchment, deep in concentration as he works through his calculations . Next to him is some sort of abacus-like calculation device, but I have no idea how to use it . When I was in elementary school, we practiced using an abacus to add and subtract, but I don’t know if the same methods apply to this thing .
When it seems that he’s come to a break in his calculations, I ask him a question .
“Otto, what’s this?”
“I’m working on the financial report and drawing up the budget . We have to come up with a budget for the year during the winter and submit it before spring comes around, but there aren’t very many soldiers who are good at math . I’m the one with the most confidence in my ability to keep track of money, so the task of doing the budget and the financial report falls on me . ”
“They’ve given you a really difficult job, huh . ”
When I look over the parchment, I can’t really read the words, but there’s three columns of numbers lined up next to them . The first two look like price and quantity, and the last one seems to be the multiplied total, I think . Is this an equipment requisition form?
As I ponder, I notice a mistake in the calculations .
“Otto, isn’t this wrong?”
“Here, this is 75 and this is 30, right? So, isn’t that 2,250? Ah! This one’s wrong too . ”
I can read the numbers, but I don’t actually know how to describe multiplication in this language, so I have to describe things in a roundabout fashion .
“Eh? I thought you couldn’t read! How can you do these calculations?”
“Heh heh heh, my mom taught me numbers when we went to the town market! So, I can look at the numbers, and I can do the math, but I can’t read any of this part over here . ”
When I say that I can’t read the words next to each entry, Otto starts to ponder something . “Nah… but maybe…” he mumbles to himself, as he broods .
“…Maine, I have to fix this . Could you help me out?”
Is it really okay for me to take over something like this? Not only is this departmental information, and probably a breach of security, but isn’t letting a child help you out with something like this really bad? Rather, aren’t you really desperate, since you’re asking for help for a child, albeit one with surprising math skill?
Not only did he say he had to fix it, he’s asking for help from a child . This really is abnormal . Since he’s putting himself on the line like this, I feel like I want to help him as best as I can .
On top of that, he’s got something I really want, and I finally have the bargaining point I was searching for .
“Okay . I’ll help you out, if you give me slate pencils and keep helping me learn the alphabet . ”
His eyes go wide again . He clearly didn’t expect a little girl like me to suddenly thrust conditions like that on him . This was exactly the response I was expecting, so, with a little chuckle, I explain the present situation .
“Like I said, my mom taught me all my numbers . I still don’t know letters, though, so I want you to teach them to me . ”
“Teaching you is fine, but… slate pencils? Those aren’t very expensive, you know?”
Just like Otto says, slate pencils are available for sale in the town market . In reality, they’re something that I actually got my mother to buy for me . So, I know they’re pretty easy to go out and buy . However, it’s a lot harder for me, personally, to obtain them .
“My mommy bought some for me a while ago, but she doesn’t really want to buy me any more . ”
“It’s probably because I spend so much time playing with the slate . I use them all up as soon as she buys them for me…”
Since I spend countless hours every day playing with the slate, the pencils wear down to nubs very quickly . Since I don’t get any pocket money for myself, you could say that finding a way to get more slate pencils is a matter of life and death for me .
“A… anyhow!” I say . “My time isn’t so cheap that I’d work for free, you know!”
“…Your time is still really cheap, though,” says Otto, smiling wryly .
Otto has now officially become my writing tutor . It looks like I wasn’t wrong about these being equipment requisition forms, but it looks like he’s in the middle of validating the math on someone else’s paperwork .
“What should I do?” I ask .
“Could you check to see if anything here is wrong? In any event, I don’t know where the errors might be hiding . It’s going to take a while to get through all of this . ”
It should be obvious, but there aren’t any computers here, so drawing up these documents takes time, but going through and checking every single calculation in this document is more work than one person alone can handle .
“There’s other soldiers that can do math, huh?”
“…That’s true, but I can do it, and I’ve got a pretty good reason to do it too…”
Somehow, it looks like Otto has some sort of circumstances behind why he became a soldier . I really want some juicy information, so I’m itching to ask him to go into more detail, but there’s a lot of validation work ahead of us to be done . I sit tight, knowing that there will be plenty of time for gossip when I see him next time .
“Maine, do you want to use the calculator?”
“No thanks, I don’t know how to use it, so I’m fine for now . I’ll work things out on my slate . ”
It’s way easier for me to do calculations on my erasable slate than it would be to do so on a blank form . I start to work through the numbers by hand, using my slate . Numbers were drilled into my head from such an early age, though, that the first symbol that pops into my head is “9” . With some effort, I make sure that I’m properly using the numerals of this world .
“Whoa, this is much easier . I’m moved! You’ve seriously saved me . I never thought that validating those calculations could go so quickly! If you can do this much math, Maine, you could definitely be a merchant some day . If you do, I can introduce you to the merchant’s guild, okay?”
It seems that for several years, Otto has had to compile all of the budgets and make all of the financial reports all by himself . Even though all we did today was checking everything, Otto is still so deeply grateful . If I were to be in a position to make a lot of books, then the best way to turn that into a bookstore would be to join the merchant’s guild . I’ve made an important connection in a really unexpected place . On top of that, I’ve earned some recognition as Otto’s invaluable assistant .
“Maine, if you want to learn how to write, then I’ll help you beat them into your skull, okay? If you do that, then you can help me write up all the papers, too . ”
“Huh? That got you excited?”
Otto’s eyes may be going wide with shock, but if he’s going to seriously teach me the alphabet, then it’s only natural that I’d be happy, right? And if I’m helping out with official paperwork, that means I’ll get to touch parchment, right? And write letters onto a page with real ink, right? Isn’t that such a joyous thing?
“Maine, sorry to keep you waiting . ”
“Let’s go home!”
Today I did more math than I’ve done in a long while, so it was a great workout for my brain . I’m so mentally fatigued that the inside of my head feels numb . It’s a pleasant feeling . This was an incredibly productive day .
“Thanks, Otto! I’m really grateful for your help . ”
“Yours too, Maine . You saved me a lot of time . ”
“See you in a bit, Daddy! Good luck with your work!” “Yep . ”
It’s been a few hours, but my father is still in a bad mood . Or maybe, did it get even worse?
Translator’s notes for this chapter:
1 . “Haru yo, Koi” (春よ来い, “Come, Spring!”) is a 90s JPop song .
2 . Radio calisthenics is basically a nationwide exercise program that’s broadcast throughout Japan to help people stay active .
3 . “Alphabet”, in a proper linguistic sense, refers to something like the English alphabet, where each letter corresponds to a specific phoneme, and multiple letters are strung together to form full syllables . The various forms of Japanese writing aren’t actually true alphabets, but are either syllabic scripts where each character represents a full syllable or logographic scripts where each character may have one or more syllables and represents an entire concept .