Ascendance of a Bookworm – 016
Bring Me To The Forest
The snow in the forest has begun to melt, and the tiny sprouts of new plants have begun to appear . That’s what Tory told me, when she came back from there . The children have started heading to the forest again to forage, which means that my long, idle hibernation where I had nothing to read and too much time on my hands is over at last .
Finally, I can make my clay tablets! I really want to head to the forest as well, so that I can get to work .
Tory said that there’s still a lot of snow left, walking is difficult due to treacherous footing, and there’s not very much out there to gather right now . However, I don’t particularly care if there’s a lot of stuff to gather or there’s nothing at all .
What I’m after is slimy, clay-like earth, which means excavation . If I can just get to the forest, I’ve already won .
Of course, there’s no way that anyone would let me head out to the forest by myself . I need to get Tory to supervise me . So, I’ve drawn up close to her in order to beg for her kindness .
“Please, Tory! I wanna go to the forest too, and make friends with the other kids . Could you take me along with you, please?”
“No way, you can’t even walk that far . ”
Her answer hasn’t changed at all . If she’s going to keep having this little confidence in me, I’m facing total defeat here .
“I’ve gotten a little stronger! If I can’t go with you, I can wait for you at the gates! Pleeease!”
Tory hesitates . I’ve been doing radio calisthenics every day, eating as much as I can, and going out with Tory when she goes downstairs to the well to wash the dishes . I’ve worked hard to boost my strength, and I think I’m just about ready .
“…If Dad says it’s okay,” she says .
Giving up on just shooing me away, she foists responsibility off on my father . Practically, though, if I were to end up waiting at the gate, I was going to need to ask my father anyway, so this was inevitable . Next, I must persuade my father .
“Daddy, can I go to the forest? I haven’t gotten sick in a while!”
“Hmmm, that is true…”
During the winter, I took extra good care of my health, and the rate at which my fevers spiked went down . I only got five of them!
Ah, that’s not a lot, you know? That’s way lower than it once was . My family even kept admiring how much healthier I was, saying “whoa, amazing” and so on .
Since my fevers didn’t come very often, I was able to keep a lot more food down . As a result, naturally, my nutritional intake was way better, and I’ve even grown a bit! Most likely, my physical strength has increased as well .
“If I can’t make it for some reason, I can rest at the gates with you! Well? Well?”
“Hmmmmm,” he says, thinking things over .
He didn’t dismiss the notion immediately, so I think I might actually have a chance with him, unlike Tory . I cling to him desperately, trying to get his approval .
“Once I get used to it, I’ll make it through! There’s three-year-olds that go to the forest, right? So it’s not impossible that I could do it!”
“Ahh, well… sure, there are, but they’re the kinds of kids that get into trouble when they’re left alone at home, so they have to get brought along . ”
“…So, if I get in trouble, I’ll get to go?”
“No need to do that,” he scolds . “Don’t be stupid . ”
If I can’t somehow secure my father’s permission, then when springtime comes around and my mother goes back to work, I’m going to be left once again in the care of old lady Gerda . That would be very hard on my mental state . Absolutely no way . I don’t want to have to look after all the other children left with her .
“Daddy, are you worried about me because I’m not very strong? How can I make you think that it’s okay if I go out to the forest?”
“Hmmm, let me think…”
My father closes his eyes, deep in thought . I wait breathlessly for his reply .
“…For now, just come with me to the gate . ”
“Only to the gate? How long is ‘for now’?”
“Until you can walk all the way to the gate without help . Once you can walk without slowing everyone down, you’ll be okay to head into the forest . ”
As I expected, it isn’t quite so easy to get permission to go out to the forest . It feels like the clay tablets I’ve staked my ambitions on are getting further and further away . Working to build my strength by walking to and from my father’s workplace at the gate is probably the biggest compromise the completely unreliable me can squeeze out .
Tch, I really wanted to go, too . My tablets…
I can’t go to the forest, but at the very least this plan means that I don’t have to stay with old lady Gerda . This is an acceptable compromise .
“…Okay . I’ll do what you said!” I say, nodding once in agreement .
My father suddenly looks relieved, all the tension draining from his face . Did he really think I wasn’t going to agree, and that I’d start running amok?
“Hey, Daddy . When you said you wanted me to walk to the gate, do you mean just going back and forth?”
“Nah, I’ll have Otto teach you some more of the alphabet,” he says . “Eh?! …Really?”
I thought that my father burned with seething jealousy over how Otto was teaching me how to write . I wonder what caused this sudden transformation? I tilt my head to the side doubtfully, and my dad’s eyebrows furrow a little bit .
“Maine, you’re pretty weak, but Otto says you’re very smart . He says that you’d be very suited to a job that required you to use your brain, when it comes time to find you one, so if you learn your letters now, you can find a job that’s a little easier on your body . ”
Otto convinced my muscle-brained, excessively doting father of that? He really is wonderful . I’m getting a little misty-eyed . I did not at all expect that I’d get official fatherly approval for Otto to teach me how to write .
“You’re good with your hands, so I was thinking that you could find a job using those, but there’s a lot more money, and a lot less strain on your body, in jobs that require thinking . ”
“Jobs that require thinking? Like what?”
It never actually occurred to me that there might be jobs in this world that relied on brainpower . It seems that there are jobs where the labor is mental, not physical, huh?
“Let me see… You could work as an amanuensis, copying out official documents for government officials and aristocrats . I heard that if you do that, you can bring your work home with you if you get sick . ”
Being paid to write out documents sounds kind of like a notary public, huh . If it’s like that, and I had the right qualifications, then I probably could bring work home if I needed to . I’m not really sure, though, because I don’t have any qualifications .
“Otto is a soldier now, but he was originally a peddler, and he still has ties with the commerce guild . The kinds of jobs that your mother and I could refer you to wouldn’t really suit you, I don’t think, so you should be grateful for Otto’s connections . ”
…My jealous, immature father is suddenly looking like a fine example of parenthood!
“Thanks, Daddy . I’ll try my hardest!”
He pats me lightly on the head, then turns to Tory .
“Tory, will you help out?”
“…She can’t do it,” she says, shaking her head .
Tory is refusing to listen to a single word of her little sister’s wish to come along to the forest . She shakes her head vigorously, all the way back and forth . Not trying to dismiss her concerns, my father nods slowly in comprehension .
“I understand, but, Maine’s going to be in trouble if she never gets strong enough to go to the forest . ”
“I guess so, but… she’ll get in the way…”
“That’s right . Right now, she’ll just be a hindrance . ”
Both Tory and my father quite plainly said I am a hindrance . I already know that myself, but hearing them affirm it right in front of me like is still a blow to my pride .
“If she can at least get to the point where she can keep up with you, then even if she can’t go all the way to the forest, she’ll come with you as far as the gate . Until she can make it to the gate herself, I’ll be the one to go with her, but when she’s ready I hope you’ll cooperate too . ” “…Okay, I’ll try . ”
Tory, the burden of responsibility weighing down on her, nods her head in agreement . My shoulders, however, still slump . It seems that my family’s estimation of my strength is still the lowest it could possibly be .
I see… they still don’t think I’ll be able to walk all the way to the gate, even though I’ve been going all the way up and down those stairs to get to the water well lately without being out of breath at all…
The next day, as the sun climbs high in the sky, my father and I set out for the gates . I only follow along with him when he has the day shift . Guard duty operates on a three-shift system . The morning shift lasts from when the gates are opened in the morning, until about noon, the day shift then goes until the gates are closed in the evening, and the night watch guards the gates from when they are closed in the evening until when they are opened once again the next morning .
Until I can walk all the way to the gates by myself, I accompany my father to the gates on his day shift, then I either go back with Tory if I’m feeling up for it at the time or I wait for my father to finish his duties and go home with him .
“Make sure Maine doesn’t overdo it,” says my mother to my father . “Keep a close eye on her!”
“Ahhh, of course,” he replies . “Let’s go, Maine!”
Waving goodbye to my worried mother, I grab my father’s hand and head off for the gates . Making it all the way down the stairs doesn’t give me much trouble anymore, but by the time we make it out to the main street, I’m starting to feel a little out of breath . Come to think of it, this is the first time I’ve ever walked out this far on my own . I’m usually being carried on someone’s back, riding in a wagon, or riding piggyback on someone’s shoulders by this point .
“How are you holding up, Maine?”
“I’m… still… fine…!”
If I give up here, they’ll never let me go to the forest . My unrelenting obsession forces me to say I’m fine, but my physical condition is anything but fine right now . My body is heavy, and I’d like nothing more than to just sit down right here .
“You’re not fine at all! …Up we go!”
Of his own accord, my father stops walking, turns around, and picks me up . I cling desperately to him, my breath rough and ragged as I suck in air .
Impossible! This will kill me! My family’s absolutely correct . There’s no way I can make it to the forest .
My father winds up carrying me in his arms for over half of the trip to the gate . When we arrive, he carries me into the night duty room so that I can rest . In all honesty, I don’t think I can do anything that isn’t taking a break . I am absolutely dead tired, so when my father lays me down on one of the benches inside, I lay there for quite some time . After noontime has come and gone, I finally am able to sit myself upright .
“Hey, Daddy . You said Otto’s going to be teaching me how to write, but that takes a lot of time, right? Is that okay? What about his other work?”
I’m pretty sure Otto has gatekeeping duties, and I’m pretty sure that teaching me the alphabet is not one of the usual duties of a soldier .
“Otto’s job actually is teaching people how to write . We have new recruits coming in . ”
“After the springtime baptism, we get about five new apprentice soldiers . It’s Otto’s job to teach them how to read and write . ”
It’s a good thing for a soldier to be able to read and write . If you can’t write down the names and titles of the people who pass through the gate, then you can’t be a gatekeeper .
“Am I going to be learning with them?”
“Yeah, that’s the plan . But, you’re not there as a new recruit, you’re there because you’re Otto’s assistant . ”
Can a kid like me really be an assistant like that? This might just be me talking, but I look like I’m three years old . I don’t think anyone would believe for a second that I really was Otto’s assistant .
“Maine, you helped Otto with his work before, right?”
“Yeah, with the financial reports and the budget… but those were just calculations . ”
I only helped Otto out that one time . Since he looked so ashamed to have asked me for that favor, I felt like I shouldn’t tell anyone about it, not even my father . Otto, however, seems to have told him, even though that might have gotten him in trouble .
“Ahh… I might have put too big of a burden on Otto when I asked him to do all of that work, all by himself, with nobody to help him . He suggested that you might be interested in helping him, in exchange for learning how to read and write . ”
Although I’d decided that being taught the alphabet was my reward, I actually wasn’t joking when I said I wanted to be Otto’s assistant .
“You’re going to basically be Otto’s personal assistant, but it’s not allowed for kids who haven’t been baptized yet to have a job . So, we’re going to say that he’s really teaching you how to write, which is why you’re coming to see him at the gates . Your salary will be in slate pencils, and you’ll have time off whenever you’re not feeling well . Otto wanted to emphasize that this isn’t easy work, you’ll be helping him with budgets and more . ”
Apparently, Otto specifically asked for me so that I can learn how to write and help him out with the paperwork . Is he thinking ahead to next year’s budget season? On top of that, by going through his superiors, he was able to get my slate pencil salary officially approved from the budget instead of having to pay me out-of-pocket . As expected of a merchant! It feels like he’s working to maximize his own profits .
“Maine,” calls Otto, “We’re about to start, are you ready?”
I grab my tote bag and head from the night room to the training room . In one corner, a wooden table and chairs have been set up . Five boys sit there, probably the apprentice soldiers my father was talking about .
“This is Maine, the squad leader’s daughter . She helps out with some of the paperwork here . She wants to learn how to write, so she’ll be joining us today . Don’t make a big deal out of this . ”
After giving me that kind of introduction, Otto begins his lessons . He writes out what appears to be the fundamental letters of the alphabet . Well, I haven’t memorized all of these, so it can’t be helped that this is the first step .
“These are all of the letters of the alphabet . ”
Today, we’re practicing five out of the thirty-five letters of the alphabet, writing them out on our slates while repeating their pronunciations . Since I was already taught a little bit about some of these letters, memorizing these takes little effort at all .
“…Maine, you really do learn things quickly,” says Otto .
“I really like doing things like this, more than I like doing things physically,” I reply .
Unlike the ordinary children of this world, I am already very much accustomed to studying . I also have no problem at all with studying on my own, and my memory is very good . Basically, this is something that I both like and am very good at . Placing me next to these rank beginners, clumsily sweeping their poorly-gripped pencils in amateurish strokes, makes them look even more pitiful by comparison .
“Mister Otto,” I say, “I think we should move on to the next thing soon . ”
It feels like it’s only been about thirty minutes, but it looks like the boys think that sitting still and practicing writing is torturous . They’ve started fidgeting in their seats, proof that they’ve already had enough .
“It’s hard for someone who’s just picked up a slate for the first time to focus on one thing for so long . We’ve practiced writing, now we should do some math, then draw maps of the area around the town, then learn the things soldiers need to know . We should take breaks every once in a while to move around . If we experience a little bit of a lot of different things during the day, we’ll master them a lot better . ”
It’s probably best to think of these children as elementary schoolers . In Japan, we’d never sit down an elementary school student and force them to write _hiragana_1 over and over for an entire day . They wouldn’t be able to handle it, and the boys of this world, who aren’t accustomed to sitting still at all, would fare far worse .
“Let’s work on calculations next,” I say . “How about we start with counting?”
Since everyone’s been shopping before, they all know how to count up to about ten . However, there’s a few kids that don’t quite seem to get it, so we spend some time writing out the numerals from zero to five while reading them aloud . Again, the boys all start to fidget in their chairs after a while, so I wrap up the lesson and send them away to work on their physical fitness .
“Let’s wrap up studying for today . Make sure you memorize the letters and numbers we learn today by next time . If any of you don’t have them down, you’re going to spend a lot more studying in here, alone, until you get it right . It’s very important that you learn these!”
The children spread out through the room . I’m no longer needed in the training room, so Otto leads me back into the night duty room . He frowns at me, disapprovingly .
“Maine, you’re being too soft,” he says . “They’ll never learn that way . ”
“Nuh-uh . If we know that learning is hard for them, and that it’ll take extra time, then it’s okay if we only teach them that much at once . Don’t compare them all to me!”
Otto scratches at his face, his stubble crackling under his fingertips . It seems like he’s realized that he might have been subconsciously comparing the other children to me .
“On top of that, if we go over it next time and they haven’t memorized it, they won’t get to go home until they do, right? So now it’s a matter of personal duty . That’s not soft at all, you know?”
“I see! That’s actually pretty strict towards these kids that have just barely started to work . ”
A grim smile crosses Otto’s face . I smile back at him, and breathe a soft sigh .
I never asked about helping out with teaching the new recruits as well, but if kids like that are my classmates, my own studies will get nowhere .
Otto comes back into the night duty room, then spends the remaining time with me doing private tutoring . He teaches me how to write certain vocabulary words, then I practice them . While I’m busy, he works on his paperwork .
“Well, Maine, it looks like you’ve got the alphabet memorized, so let’s get you started on some vocabulary . I’ll teach you some of the most common words . ”
Mr . Otto does in fact teach me vocabulary words, but a lot of the words he’s teaching me have to do with equipment or gatekeeping duties . It really does look like he has his sights set on making me help him write up official documents . If he can make me more useful, then he’s probably going to draft me into helping out with all of the paperwork come next year’s budget season .
Some of the first words he taught me were “character reference”, “nobleman”, “letter of introduction”, and “petition”, you know? How are these “the most common words”? At the very least, if we started by learning the names of goods, I could learn words like “hay” or “foodstuffs”, and the names of kinds of weapons and armor…
My pencil clacks against the slate as I continue to spell out words . Suddenly, my father’s voice cuts through the room . It’s almost time for the gates to close, and it seems like Tory and her friends have just returned from the forest . I put my slate back in my tote bag and run outside to meet everyone .
“Tory!” I call, waving .
“Let’s head home, Maine . ”
There are a few other children with Tory . They all have bags and boxes strapped to their backs, packed full of their tools and the things that they’ve gathered . A couple of them give me strange looks, eyeing my single tote bag suspiciously .
“Eh? ‘Maine’?” says one of them .
“Is that Tory’s little sister? I’ve never seen her before . ”
I hide behind Tory, shielding myself from the impolite stares of these filthy children .
“Maine doesn’t come outside very much,” says Tory, chuckling wryly, “so it’s only natural you wouldn’t have met her . ”
It seems like the fact that I never show my face at any of the big local events is causing these kids to treat me like they just saw a rare monster spawn . Tory tries to reassure me that they’re just curious and not trying to tease me, but their stares still hurt .
“Maine, you’re going back with us?” asks a familiar voice .
Inwardly, I breathe a huge sigh of relief, seeing Lutz’s familiar face in the group . I look around, trying to find Ralph, but there’s no sign of his red hair and strong build anywhere .
“Huh? Is Ralph not with you today? Is he okay?”
“Ralph turned seven this spring, so he’s working today . ”
Ralph was only seven? That’s what Maine’s memories seemed to say, but since he was so strong and so caring, I thought he had to actually be at least eight or nine . Huh? Is it just me, or did Lutz grow a bunch over the winter? It looks like this world still obeys the laws of heredity .
As I’ve been carefully considering these matters, we’ve started walking . These kids have been out in the forest all day and want to get home as quickly as possible to get their heavy packs off of their backs, so they’re walking at a pretty decent pace . Tory and Lutz notice that I’m in danger of getting left behind, and call out to the group to slow down for me .
“Hey, everyone, don’t rush!”
“You doing okay, Maine?”
I was planning on powering through and keeping up with them, but no matter how hard I tried the group started steadily pulling ahead . Children are merciless . There’s no way they were going to wait up for me .
“Everyone, you’re going too fast…” says Lutz .
“Sorry, Lutz,” says Tory . “Do you mind slowing down for Maine? I have to keep an eye on all of the kids . ”
Tory is the oldest of this group of unbaptized children, so she needs to look out for everyone in the group, not just her little sister .
“Got it,” says Lutz . “Maine, take your time . I’ve got a lot of things I’m carrying today, so I won’t be able to carry you too if you get tired halfway through . ”
“Okay,” I reply .
I may have been left behind, but Lutz falls back to walk with me on my way home . I don’t want to get tired and burden Lutz any further, so I slow down to conserve my energy .
“What were you at the gate for, Maine?” he asks .
“I was studying the alphabet,” I reply . “The alphabet? You can write?!”
Lutz is extremely shocked by this revelation . His eyes gleam with respect as he turns to look at me, but it only makes me feel uncomfortable . I wouldn’t really describe myself as being able to write, since I only really know a few specific words .
“I can’t really write anything but my name very well . I’m still practicing . ”
“Whoa, Maine! You can write your name?!”
Huh? Did that somehow make him respect me more?
I never would have thought that just being able to write your name would be so impressive . Although, now that I’m actually thinking about it, if the village elder is the only person in an entire village of peasants who can read and write, then it really is comparatively amazing that my father can write down other people’s names .
I consider that first-grade level skill, but in this world, it’s really worthy of respect…
I suddenly realize how precious being able to help out with paperwork is . It did seem like Otto was more interested in my upbringing than the other soldiers . If I decided that it was good enough for me to just be able to write other people’s names, there’s no way he’d be able to teach me how to write up official documents .
“Maine, you okay?”
In my case, learning how to write is the easy part . Building up my strength is what’s painful . Lutz helps me along the entire rest of the way, but by the time I make it back home, I’m so exhausted that I can’t even speak .
As expected, I’m immediately stricken with another fever, lasting two whole days .
“That’s why I said not to push yourself too hard!” huffs my mother, but I seem to have actually gotten a little stronger . Ordinarily, I’d be out of action for five days, but this time I was actually ready to head back out on the third day .
After a while, I settled into a routine . I’d walk with my dad towards the gate, although I got tired about halfway through, requiring him to carry me the rest of the way . I spent the day practicing how to write and helping Otto with calculations . When the children came back from the forest, I went along with them, but would immediately lose my breath and fall behind, causing Lutz to hang back with me, worried . Then, after I got home, then I’d be out for another few days .
This lasted for over a month, but then I definitely started to get stronger . I started with one day of going out and three days of rest, but then I got it down to two days, and then I started only resting every other day . At that point, I was still going very slowly, but I was somehow managing to make it all the way to the gate on my own . After that, I started going two, even three days in a row, still only taking a day off in between .
When I first made it to the gates five days in a row, my family was thrilled .
“You did it, Maine! That’s the first time you’ve made it all the way without a break,” said Tory .
“You’ve really gotten stronger . I’m so proud of you!” said my father .
“You should be about ready to head to the forest,” said my mother .
Right after my family finally praised me, I was immediately hit with another fever, taking me out for another two whole days . It seems like things didn’t work quite as well as I planned .
Three months after I started going back and forth between the gates, I’m finally given permission to head into the forest . Here and there, I can see glimpses of summertime . It seems that spring is at its end .
Translator’s notes for this chapter:
1 . Hiragana is the most basic syllabary in Japanese . It’s the first set of characters taught to students .