Ascendance of a Bookworm – 017
Three Cheers for Mesopotamia!
Today is the very first day I will be heading to the forest on my own two feet . Today, I’m leaving my tote bag and slate at home . Instead, I’ve got a wooden basket on my back like everyone else (although mine is smaller), containing a shovel that I’ll be using to dig up the earth . I can’t help but think of a wooden spatula when I look at this shovel, though . To be perfectly honest, I think this spatula is going to be even less effective at actual excavation than the little plastic shovels that kids use in the sandbox . Doesn’t anyone else see this?
As I brandish the shovel, which absolutely looks like it is going to break immediately, my father grabs me firmly by the shoulder . He turns me around to face him, and starts giving me the same lecture that he’s been constantly giving ever since we decided that I could go to the forest .
“Maine . All you’re doing today is going to the forest, then coming back . Everyone’s going to have a lot of things to carry on their way back, and they’re going to be tired . I want you to rest up while you’re out there so that you’ll have enough energy to make it back with them by yourself . Understand?”
“I got it!”
My father’s face grows very serious for a moment, although I can’t tell if it’s just because of my answer itself or because any of my frustrations at being told this countless times might be starting to spill over . He turns to Tory .
“Tory,” he says, “this might be tough, so I’m counting on you . Please talk with Lutz to make sure he knows that Maine is going to have to make it back before the gates close . ”
“Okay . Today we’ll make sure to leave early,” she replies .
Tory already has an overflowing sense of responsibility, but when she hears my father’s request, her sense of duty burns brightly as well . Today, she seems a little more strict than usual .
By the time we head outside, there are already other children gathered near the well, boxes and baskets strapped to their backs as well . There’s a total of eight of us, ranging from the young kids like me who haven’t really started growing up to the older kids like Tory and Fey, who are a little bit bigger and stronger . Fey leads the way with his pink hair while Tory brings up the rear . As for me, I’ll start at the front with Fey, but by the time we reach our destination I’ll have fallen more or less to the rear .
“Alright, Maine . Let’s go! Don’t slow down, okay?”
I may be used to walking to the gates by now, but this is my first time going all the way to the forest . Thus, Lutz will be setting the pace for me . Over the last three months while walking between the gates and my home, Lutz has been gradually been figuring out what the upper bounds of my walking speed are . It’s thanks to him that we’ll be going at a speed that’s only as fast as I can comfortably go .
“Thanks, Lutz,” I say .
“No, thank you, Maine, you’ve been a big help too,” he replies .
The other day, we had to finish off the last of the leftover squeezed paru . It seems that paru, which can apparently only be harvested during the winter, go bad very quickly once the weather starts to warm up . So, in thanks for everything they’ve done for me so far, I modified the recipe for bean curd hamburgers and taught them how to make paruburgers .
I made a sauce by boiling down a kind of fruit called a “pomay” . It looks at a glance like a yellow bell pepper, but it has a very tomato-like consistency and flavor on the inside . To finish the dish off, I melted cheese on top of it . The gentle sweetness of the paru added an unexpectedly deep flavor to the dish . I was a little shocked myself, and I made it!
Incidentally, Lutz literally started crying earlier, and his older brothers followed suit . They seem to have been deeply moved by the fact that I managed to double the amount of delicious food that they were able to eat during the winter . Carla, their mother, thanked me from the bottom of her heart for how easy my style of cooking is on their family’s finances . Having to feed four kids must be extremely rough . Engel’s law is absolutely murderous when you’re at the low end of the scale, huh?
“Maine, why couldn’t you have told us about paruburgers during the winter?!” Lutz complains .
“Well, if you want to mince beef, it has to be very fresh, you know? Also, mincing meat is really difficult, and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to convince everyone to help me…”
“Ahhh, yeah, it’s tough, but we would have done it for the sake of your cooking!”
I completely lack the strength required to work a knife for long enough to actually mince meat, and there was no way my mother would have agreed to doing something so difficult, so until now I haven’t been able to eat anything like a hamburger . I’m very glad that Lutz and his family were able to help me, and I consider myself very lucky to have been able to enjoy paruburgers with them .
We keep a steady pace towards the forest, chatting about cooking along the way . Talking as we walk made the long journey actually kind of enjoyable, but as soon as we hit the forest all of the fatigue catches up to me at once, crashing over me like a wave . While everyone goes off to start foraging, I sit myself down on a sizable rock and try to recover as much of my stamina as I can . As I sit on my rock, hunched over and sucking in short, ragged breaths, Lutz comes over, obviously concerned .
He pats me on my back . “Maine, you’re going to need to get used to coming out here . Otherwise, it’ll be a big problem once Fey and Tory have their baptisms . ”
“…Why’s …that?” I gasp .
I certainly am aware that Tory is about to get baptized . After all, she has new clothes for the occasion, and I helped make her some hairpins . I’m not, however, very clear on what all happens after the ceremony .
“After she gets baptized, she’s going to start her apprenticeship, right? So that means that you’re going to have to come out here alone for half the week . ”
My eyes go wide as Lutz explains the situation . When Tory starts her apprenticeship, then I’m going to have far less help from her when it comes to a lot of the things I do every day .
“Wh… what do I do? I hadn’t really considered this…”
Maine may be weak, but her life has been quite pleasant thanks to the fact that Tory is such a dependable older sister . If Maine needed anything, she could always bother Tory for it . Without Tory there, though, I don’t think I’ll be able to live . The blood drains from my face as I quietly sit there and panic . Lutz, however, chuckles, scratching at his nose .
“Heh heh, well, when Tory’s gone, I can help you out instead . You’re still so weak!”
“Thanks, Lutz . I’m really glad for your help . ”
“Ah… well, I’ve got to go looking for firewood, so you should just stay here and rest up . ” He adjusts his backpack, then turns to walk away . “If you can’t make it back to the city, we’ll be in big trouble, you know!”
Lutz wanders off, heading deeper into the forest . After his footsteps have faded into the distance, I look around my surroundings to make sure that there’s nobody around, then drop to the ground, pull out my makeshift shovel, and get ready start my excavations .
Today, my goal was to make it all the way to the forest and back without getting sick . However!!I’ve made it all the way out here, to the forest, at long last! Is it even possible for me to just go home without even trying to challenge this obstacle? Absolutely not! Dig! Dig! Dig until you can’t dig any more!
I’m hoping to find some clay-like soil, but how far down am I going to have to dig to find it? Assuming the soil composition here is like it is back on Earth, I should be able to find some if I dig a fair ways down .
With all of my power, I thrust my shovel deep into the soil . Unfortunately, this vaguely shovel-shaped piece of wood only manages to get about a centimeter in .
This is solid! Uh… can I even really dig here?
This feels like I’m trying to dig up the packed dirt beneath a well-used sports field . I had this image in my mind of a forest’s soil being a lot more moist and loose than this . I feel a little betrayed .
Is it the really soil that’s too hard, though, or is it that this shovel is terrible? …Yeah, I’m betting it’s the shovel .
There is a world of difference between my concept of what a shovel should look like and thisthing . I wanted something made out of metal, at least, not wood! Regardless, though, it doesn’t matter if the shovel’s made of wood, or if the ground is too hard or too soft, abandoning this is just not an option . Even if progress is going to be slow, what choice do I have but to continue digging?
Scraping, scraping, scraping, scraping…
My wooden shovel slowly peels away the topmost layers of dirt . Unearthing my clay is going to take a lot of time, patience, and strength, and it really doesn’t look like I’m going to be able to get it done in just one day . It looks like making clay tablets is going to be some serious work . I can only pray that it will be easier than my attempt to make pseudo-papyrus .
Scraping, scraping, scraping, scraping…
By the time I’ve gotten maybe five centimeters deep, I hear someone’s footsteps approach from behind me .
“What the heck are you doing, Maine?” says Lutz as he approaches, both hands full of sticks and branches . His eyes go wide as he sees me sitting on the ground, digging with my shovel . “You promised that you were going to stay put and rest if we took you with us to the forest, right?!”
I certainly did promise that when we were leaving, but there was no way I could just sit tight when my target was finally right in front of me . I was planning on stopping before Lutz returned, but once I got started, I just couldn’t quit .
…W, what do I do?
I was able to fool my father with a smile and a hug, but Lutz and Tory have specifically been appointed my guardians . I won’t be able to trick them that easily . I know from experience that if I try, that would only make me look more suspicious, and they’d end up asking me even more direct questions .
“Uh, ummm… you see, Lutz,” I stammer .
“…I see what?”
Lutz furrows his brow, puts his hands on his hips, and looks down at me sternly . My interrogation has begun . Well then . If I tell him the truth, he’s going to get mad at me for not thinking things through, and if I lie, then he’s going to see through it and get mad at me for lying to him . Which of these options is the least damaging?
“I’m pretty sure that I told you that you need to be resting, so what the heck were you doing?” he demands .
“…Um, ummm! I was digging a hole!!”
The truth spills out of my mouth as my will crumbles under Lutz’s imposing aura .
I’m actually pretty scared of him getting angry at me . I’m pretty dependent on him right now . If he storms off, I won’t make it back home before the gates close .
“Yeah, I can see that . What are you digging for?”
Even though I’d answered honestly, Lutz seems twice as angry now . He glares at me from above, his eyes cold as ice .
“Well, um, you see… I want some ‘clay’ . ”
“Huh? You want some what?”
Lutz cocks his head to one side, unable to understand what I’m getting at . His expression grows slightly more dubious, and seemingly slightly less angry .
“I want soil that’s really dense and solid, the kind where water doesn’t drain away . ”
“…If you wanted that, wouldn’t there be a lot more of that over there, where there’s not a lot of trees and grass?”
If soil has bad drainage, then it’s difficult for plants to grow there . I guess it would be much more efficient to look for a place with fewer plants .
“Thanks, Lutz!” I say, immediately standing up to leave .
“Hey! Maine, wait!”
Lutz reaches out and grabs me by the scruff of my neck before I can run away . He’s got both size and strength over me, so there’s no way I can escape .
“Let me go, Lutz . ”
“Your job today is to rest, Maine . Haven’t you been listening?” he says, pulling on my ears . “This isn’t something you need to run out and get literally right now, right?”
“Ow, ow, ow!” Flustered, I flail my arms ineffectively as I cry out . “I don’t need it to live! I just really want it, so I wasn’t going to bother anyone to help me get it!”
Lutz lets go of my ears, and I immediately clap my hands over them, glaring up at him with teary eyes . He falters, just a little bit, although I don’t know if it’s because he can’t come up with a good rebuttal or because he’s scared of the powerful love that I show towards books despite not really being materialistic otherwise . What’s important, though, is that this is an opening that my instincts are telling me that I cannot let slip past . Now is my time to strike!
“If you make me sit still here, are you going to go dig it up yourself?!”
“…I’ve actually gathered my share of the firewood for today, so I can do that . So, Maine, sit there and be good . ”
I am floored by this completely unexpected reply . My jaw drops, and I can do nothing but stare blankly up at him . He should have lashed back out at me for what I just said, but… is this guy an idiot? He surely has more important things to do than helping me work on a project that he has no interest in at all . Rather than digging up clay, shouldn’t he be gathering something?
“Lutz, um, I’m happy you want to help, but don’t you have your own things to do?”
“Maine, you’re really weak, and there’s no way you’ll be able to dig that up, so I’ll do it for you . You can pay me back by telling me what it is you need it for and what you want to do . ”
“Well, if I know what you want to do with it, then I can help you avoid doing something useless . Just now, even though you knew exactly what you wanted, you were digging in the wrong place, you know?”
Ouch, right in my weak spot .
Even though I certainly know what it is I’m after, I don’t know the words for it in this language, I don’t know what things might look like here that are different in Japan, and I don’t have the tools that I need . There are a lot of places where I can go wrong . After that explanation, I definitely understand now how useful it would be to have Lutz’s help in this project, but I still don’t actually know what his motivation is .
“Why do you want to help me like this?”
“Hm? You made me parucakes when I was super, super hungry that one time, right? I decided right then that I needed to help you out in the future . ”
Huh? Just like that? That’s all it took to get him to dig up some clay for me? Wow, I shouldn’t underestimate the power of tasty food .
To be perfectly honest, I have no idea what’s going on in Lutz’s head that makes him equate pancakes to heavy labor, but as far as I’m concerned, he’s a lifesaver . Lutz offered to help of his own volition and without any reservations, so of course I’ll accept . It’s fantastic that I have someone to entrust the heavy lifting to .
“…Okay, I’ll leave it to you,” I say . “I’ll wait here . ”
“Okay! I just need to finish this up real quick . ”
In a flash, he gathers up his firewood and stows it away . Real quick, indeed . Then, he leads me over to where he thinks that the drainage in the soil is poor, at a somewhat low, sloping spot in the forest floor .
“Should be around here,” he says, pulling out the shovel I had brought with me . He shoves the wooden, spatula-like implement into the earth and begins to dig .
“Maine, you brought this shovel all the way out here . This digging thing isn’t just some impulse, is it . Were you even intending to keep your promise?”
“Um!? W… well, uh… ummm, I finally was able to come out here, and I just couldn’t wait any longer . So I guess I did plan this…”
His face twitching, Lutz stabs the shovel deep into the ground with all his might in a sudden outburst of emotion .
“Craaap, I wasn’t paying enough attention . You looked like you were going to be good!”
“Yeah, but… my daddy was paying even less attention . ”
“Your dad’s way too soft on you!”
Lutz, fueled by his anger, tears up the earth, despite the fact that he’s using the wooden shovel I was barely able to make any progress width . Unlike the slow, steady scraping that I was doing, Lutz pounds away at the ground, gouging out chunks of the earth with every strike . This is a marvel to watch .
Is this just the strength difference? Or is it the way he’s doing it? Is there a knack to it?
“Huh? The color of the dirt is different down here?”
Lutz has excavated about fifteen centimeters down to a layer where the earth is a different color .
“Is this what you want, Maine?” he asks, holding up a small chunk of earth, which I take from him .
It’s cool to the touch, dense, and sticky, and it changes shape as I try to mold it with my fingers . There’s no mistake, this is exactly the kind of clay I was searching for .
“Yeah, this is it! Wow, Lutz, you’re so strong! This would have taken me forever to do . ”
“I’m definitely not as weak as you, at least,” he says, as he continues to dig out more clay .
My eyes glitter with excitement as I start ferrying the growing pile of clay, bit by bit, over to a nearby rock . How many tablets am I going to be able to make with this, I wonder? I’m still only just thinking ahead, but I’m already starting to fall in love with these lumps of clay .
“So, what are you going to do with this?” he asks .
“Eheheh~, I’m going to make some ‘clay tablets’ . ”
I squeeze and stretch the clay, Lutz’s effort given form, into the shape of a thin clay board . When I’ve finished stretching into shape, I pick up a thin stick from the ground, then start to write out the fairy tales that my mother back in Japan used to tell me .
I really want to be writing this in the local language if I could, but the things Otto’s been teaching me are all the high-level vocabulary that are needed for work . I can probably write out boilerplate text for a nobleman’s title or letter of introduction by now, but I still don’t know any words that are actually useful in ordinary circumstances . For now, I’ll stick to writing in Japanese .
“Maine, are those words you’re writing?”
“Yeah, they are . If I record everything in a document like this, then if I forget something in the future I can read this to remember it . Documents are amazing, you know! If I write out enough of these like this, I can then collect them into a book, which is even more amazing . ”
“Lutz, thank you so much for getting me this clay! If there’s something else you need to go gather, then you can go do that, okay? I’ll just stay here and write . ”
“Got it . ”
The story that I’m writing right now feels like it should be titled “The Shoemaker and the Elves, Alternate Universe Edition” . I try to squeeze as many characters onto each slab as I can, but in the end it takes me nearly ten tablets to finish the story .
“Alright, I did it!”
At the bottom of the page, I scribe the character for “the end”, visibly trembling with excitement . I spin around, throwing my hands in the air in glee .
Clay tablets are amazing! Clay tablets are doable! Three cheers for the great ancient civilization of Mesopotamia!
Once I get these home, I can fire them in the stove . If they don’t crack and fall apart, then they truly will be complete . I clench my writing stick tightly in my fist, then turn around to gaze upon my spread of tablets .
In the next instant, my hands are clasped to the sides of my face, mouth gaping wide open, looking very much like that _The Scream_2 . All of the blood drains from my face as I take in the almost unbelievable situation I see before me .
“What’s wrong, Maine?” asks Fey, standing in front of me .
“Y… you stepped on them! They’re all… squished!! W… waaaaaah!!”
The first half, the entire first half, of the story that I had so carefully and painstakingly written out, has been squashed completely out of shape by the bootprints of Fey and his friends . They’re unrecognizable as tablets anymore, and of course the writing on them is completely illegible .
“I… I just finished that… after so much work… this!” I hiccup, barely choking back my tears . “Don’t you know how much effort I’ve put in to finally make it out here?! I put so! much! time! into trying to make this absurdly frail body strong enough to do this, pushed myself through all sorts of pain, and I really thought… Aaah, I even dragged Lutz and Tory into this too, and still! I finally finished this, I finally got it done, and then what?! Is there anything in that skull of yours? Is your hair pink because your brain is stuffed full of flowers?! Idiot! Idiot idiot idiot! Waaaaaaaah!!”
I break down crying in such a ridiculous emotional display that I, who is supposed to have the mental stability of an adult, should be ashamed of . I can’t stop sobbing, I can’t stop my tears from falling . If you put my supposed emotional maturity aside, though, this is exactly what a very distressed little girl should look like .
Having heard me scream, Tory rushes over with wide, worried eyes . She quickly asks around to figure what the current situation is, then crouches down next to me, wrapping a comforting arm around me .
“Maine, there’s no need to cry like that . They didn’t mean to hurt you, you know?”
It doesn’t matter if they had ill intentions or not, that’s not going to change the fact that my tablets have been smashed into pulp . No matter what Tory says, there’s no way it can abate my resentment, my rage, over seeing the finished product that I had finally achieved smashed right in front of me .
“No! I’ll never forgive them!”
Tears and snot stream down my face, but I lift my head to give a terrified Fey my most threatening glare . Lutz gently pats me on the back .
“You can make them again, right?” he says . “I’ll help, and these guys want to make up for this so they’ll help too, right?”
“Ah, yeah!” exclaims Fey . “We’ll help . I’m really sorry . ”
Fey and his friends nod vigorously, not disagreeing with Lutz at all .
“…Okay,” I say . “I’ll make it again . ”
I was able to make these tablets once, so I’m sure that I’m on the right path . Clay tablets are far easier to make than papyrus, and I’m satisfied with the final result .
However, I make very sure to leave them with a warning .
“There will not be a second time . ”
If these kids are keeping a list of people not to piss off, I’m pretty sure I just jumped to the top of it . ]
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 .
2 . The Edvard Munch painting .