Ascendance of a Bookworm – 019
Clay Tablets: Also no good .
While gripped by feverish nightmare, I dreamed up ways to bury Fey and his lackeys in the icy grip of terror .
I was so close! I was so close to finally having a book! But, if I can’t go to the forest, and if I can’t have any clay brought back to me, then I’ll never get my book .
It would seem that this calls for the most traumatic of ideas: classic Japanese horror . I have no solid idea about what the denizens of this world are truly afraid of, but if I let my hair hang down in front of my face like Sadako1, wear a stained, tattered dress, and stumble towards them while whispering dark curses… or maybe I could count my missing clay tablets like Okiku from _Bancho Sarayashiki_2… How about that? That’s scary, right?
Even though I had come up with so many good ideas, by the time my fever went down, my father had changed his mind . When I’m finally healthy enough to get out of bed, he tells me that he’s lifted the ban on my going to the forest .
“…Tomorrow,” he says, with a complicated expression on his face .
“Hm?” I reply, looking up at him .
“You can go back to the forest tomorrow . ”
“Huh? I can? Why?”
“…You don’t seem happy . ”
I actually really am happy that I can go back to the forest, but this means all of my Japanese horror plans are for naught . I’d been practicing mumbling curses, thinking about how to make my clothes look properly ghastly, and coming up with the perfect times and places to really set the stage for the whole spectacle . I could have stood on the edge of the well, or I could have shuffled out of a dark alleyway…
“I mean, I’m happy, but…”
“…And I’d come up with all of these really good plaaans… and it would be a waste to just let them go, right?”
“Not at all!! Throw whatever schemes you’re plotting out of your head right this very instant!”
Well, if I can go to the forest and finish working on my tablets, then my plans aren’t really necessary . In fact, it would ultimately be more wasteful to actually go through with them . I no longer have the free time to play around with Fey and the others, so it’s obvious that those plans are just going to be automatically discarded .
Nevertheless, what on earth happened to make him change his mind so suddenly?
“I’ve been keeping an eye on how you’re doing, and I think you can go tomorrow . But no sooner!”
It seems that he didn’t want me to go because suddenly taking off for the forest while I was still convalescing would have been a terrible idea . I already knew that, though . Nobody in the world knows better than me what a pile of junk this body is .
Today, my fever went down and I was given permission to go back to the forest . My heart dances with joy as I work on preparing everything I’ll need for tomorrow . In the storage room, I find some sort of board that I might be able to use as a writing desk, and put it in my basket . (What that board is supposed to be used for, I don’t know . ) Then, I grab the entire pile of old rags that my mother uses as cleaning cloths and stuff them in there too . I’ll use those to wrap my tablets in for transport on the way home .
Clay tablets! Clay tablets clay tablets clay tablets I’m coming for yooou!!
The next day, I wake up energized and excited, only to be greeted by heavy rain . Not just any heavy rain, even, but a torrential, record-breaking downpour, a storm so fierce that it’s practically a typhoon . Even though the shutters on our window are closed, I can still hear the howling of the wind and the pounding of the rain .
In a world without weather forecasts, thinking about the weather had never even occurred to me . There’s been many times where I haven’t been able to go outside because my fever was too high or because my family didn’t say it was okay, but until now I was never kept indoors by bad weather .
Visions flash through my head of my tablets, pounded by the rain until they’re nothing but mud . Even though I had hidden them from the elements under some bushes, that’s nowhere close to being adequate protection against a typhoon like this .
Ngyaaaaah! My tablets…! They’re turning to droopy mush!!
“Hey, Maine, wait!” yells my mother as I immediately, unthinkingly, dash for the door . She grabs both of my arms and holds them behind me, stopping me in place . “Where do you think you’re going?!”
“The forest!” I yell, struggling against her grip .
“Even on the best of days you get fevers far too quickly, so why would you think that going outside in the middle of a storm like this is a good idea?!”
The sound of the wind and the rain pounding ceaselessly at the wooden door reverberates through the house . Just from the noise, it’s obvious that this is an extremely violent storm . An ordinary person would hesitate before trying to go out in this, even if it’s just to the well, so there’s no chance in hell that I’ll be able to make it outside at all . Heartbroken, I sit down abruptly, like a puppet with its strings cut .
“My ‘clay tablets’… waaah!”
“It’s okay, Maine,” says Tory, coming over to comfort me . “Everyone said that they’re going to help you this time, so it’ll be even quicker and easier than before to make them . ”
She gently strokes my head as she reassures me that everything’s going to be okay . She really is an amazing older sister .
The storm is so unusually bad that it lasts for two full days before clearing up, so it isn’t until after that that the children got permission to go back out to the forest .
The morning sun shines brightly down from an astoundingly clear sky, and the faces of all of these children that can finally go to the forest shine brightly as well . Today, the apprentices aren’t working, so a lot of the bigger kids have joined us as well . We have far more people coming with us today than usual . Ralph, one of Lutz’s older brothers, is joining us today . He has an enormous basket strapped on his back, and a bow and a quiver full of arrows hanging at his side .
“Hey, Maine!” he says, cheerfully . “Is your fever doing any better?”
“Good morning, Ralph,” I reply . “I’m got better a little while ago, but as soon as my dad said I was okay to go that awful storm hit . ”
“That really is awful,” he says .
He ruffles my hair, then turns to Tory .
“Hey, Tory,” he says .
“Ralph! It’s been a while,” she replies .
Ralph, looking remarkably more reliable than he did before, maybe because he’s been working on his apprenticeship .
Tory, whom I have been carefully polishing in preparation for her baptism, and her radiant smile .
Hey, hey . Don’t these two look really good together? They’re both really good at taking care of people too, they’re a great match .
As I leer at the two of them, Lutz grabs my arm and starts yanking me forward .
“Maine, stop staring off into space . You’re the slowest person here, so you’ve got to be in front when we leave, okay?”
“Oh! Sorry . ”
I join the mass of children, and we all start walking towards the forest . As we pass through the gate, the green, open fields stretch out before us . The scars left by the storm can be seen here and there, where a few of the fields of crops have been torn to shreds .
Come to think of it, does this world have anything like disaster relief?
I stare blankly off into the distance, my feet moving mechanically beneath me . Lutz sticks his hand in front of my face and waves it back and forth .
“Eh?” I say, blinking . “What’s up?”
“Oh, I just was wondering if you were actually watching where you were going . Hey, Maine, you’re going to try making those things again, today? Those ‘cley tab-luts’? What are those, anyway?”
Lutz can’t read, so he couldn’t have any idea what I’ve been trying to write down, even if I wasn’t writing in Japanese . More importantly, though, he’s been living a life without written words or even paper at all in his house . He absolutely has no idea about the amazing wonders of permanent media like clay tablets .
I suddenly feel a strange sense of purpose; a desire to proselytize, to spread the good word of the written word .
“Well, so,” I begin, “it’s a thing that I can use to write down things that I don’t want to forget . If you carefully write everything down, you’ll never forget it, you know, because since you’ve written it down you can always go back and look at it again, right? ‘Media’ exist for that reason, and my ‘clay tablets’ are one kind of ‘medium’ . Since it’s made out of clay, and since you can knead and mold clay, if you make a mistake when writing, you can use your finger to smooth it out again and start over . You can bake it when you’re done, if you want it to last forever . It’s amazing, right?”
I don’t know if it’s because of the eloquence of my explanation, but Lutz has his mouth hanging open, head tilted to one side .
“…I don’t get it . …Anyway, what are you trying to write?”
“A story, I’m writing a story . It’s one that Mommy told me, so I want to write it down so that I don’t forget it, you know? What I really want are books, but I can’t get any of those here, so I’m making my own . ”
“Ahhh, so is that what you’ve been trying to do?”
Lutz’s question suddenly makes me think . Right now, I don’t have even a single book available to me, so I decided that I needed to somehow make my own . What I really, truly want, though, is not making books .
“Nuh-uh, it’s a little different . What I really want is to live a life where I’m surrounded by books . No matter many books are written every month, I want to have all of them, and I want to be able to grow old spending all of my time reading . ”
“Ummm, so… you want books…?”
“Yes!! I want them very badly, and I want them right now . But they’re so expensive that I can’t buy them, so they’re way out of my reach . I’ve got no choice but to make them myself, right? Paper is too expensive to buy, so my plan is to make clay tablets, write a story, and then bake it so that I can have it forever . ”
At this point, Lutz claps his hands together, and a moment of understanding flashes across his face .
“So, what you’re doing is making a substitute for a book?”
“Yeah! I’ve failed a lot of times so far, so this time I’m absolutely going to make this a big success . ”
“Ah! Okay, I’ll help out too . ”
For whatever reason, Lutz has become so cooperative because I had some ideas about cooking . I kind of want to help him out a little, too .
“So, Lutz, what do you want to do? You’ve heard what I want to do, but do you have anything that you really want to do?”
“I… hmm! I want to try going to other towns . If I become a peddler or a minstrel, then I could go a lot of places, and hear a lot of stories, right? There’s a lot out there I want to see . ”
“That sounds nice…”
Come to think of it, back in Japan, I also used to dream of spending my life traveling to the great libraries of foreign countries and reading all of their books . As visions of my unfulfilled dreams unfold in my head, my gaze drifts off into the distance .
“…You really think so?” he asks . “About wanting to leave this town?”
“A~ah, traveling is good too! Traveling around, going here and there, that sounds fun . I always used to dream about traveling, visiting all sorts of ‘libraries’ all over ‘the world’…”
“Ah, I was worried you’d think I was being ridiculous . …If it’s something you want to do, Maine, I’m sure you’re going to make it happen . ”
“You too, Lutz . I think you can do it if you try . ”
My mind is so crammed full of the countless dreams I had back when I was Urano that I’m far too preoccupied to notice whatever expression Lutz is wearing on his face right now .
By the time we arrive at the forest, the packed dirt of the road has almost finally dried . We quickly pick a large clearing on the edge of the forest as a good meeting spot .
“Okay, let’s get started gathering,” says one of the older children . “Little kids, don’t go too far from here . Make sure you can always see this clearing, okay?”
The older kids take out their bows and arrows, and take off deeper in the forest . The younger kids hesitate, glancing nervously at me . I may be exhausted just from walking all the way here, but I immediately start looking around the area, worried about the state of my clay tablets .
“Hey, does anyone remember where we put my ‘clay tablets’?”
I can’t find the tree we put a mark on the last time we were here . It’s already been quite a few days since I was here last, so I’ve already forgotten, but everyone’s looking around restlessly, troubled looks on their faces .
“We marked a tree somewhere over there, right?” says Fey, pointing off into a distance . Immediately, all of his lackeys start nodding . I had a hunch that that direction was where we needed to be looking, but the storm had knocked down so many trees that it was hard to be sure .
“That’s about where it was, so I guess we just need to start looking around there,” says Lutz, bending town to start looking through some of the bushes . Everyone else starts bustling about together, searching here and there .
It’s not just Fey and his lackeys, everyone is helping search… wow, these are all some really good kids, aren’t they?
“Hey,” says Fey, squatting down low beside a bush . “Isn’t this it?”
Our landmark had been broken apart, so it had been difficult to find, but Fey waves his hand at me, beckoning me over . I rush over with every scrap of speed I can muster to take a look . All I see is a misshapen lump of earth, with vague hints of ruined, illegible characters . Just as I expected, it’s all soggy and muddy, and you can’t really even make out that there were words carved into them at all . My tablets have returned to being just lumps of clay .
Ah… back to square one again…
“It… it wasn’t my fault this time! I found them like this!” exclaims Fey, hurriedly .
“…Yeah,” I reply, though it’s obvious what happened even if he didn’t say anything .
I know that it’s not his fault . I know that everyone around me is asking what’s going on or wondering what they should do . I know that this is something that I had known was going to happen . Still, I can’t stop the tears streaming down my face .
As tiny sobs leak out of me despite my better efforts, I hear footsteps come up behind me . They come up right beside me, and a hand is placed lightly on my head .
“Maine,” says Lutz, “if you’ve got enough time to cry about it, you should use that to make some new ones instead . ”
His words snap me back to reality . That’s right, it’s just like he says . I’m finally back out here, with Fey and his friends here to help me rebuild them . I sniff, wiping the snot from my nose off with my sleeve, and lift my head .
As if I’d give up here!
My first defeat was under the boots of Fey and his disastrous lackeys . My second defeat was at the hands of time, cutting me off with the closing of the gates . My third defeat was by the howling storm .
I have fought through man-made calamity and natural disaster! There can’t possibly be anything left that can stop me now . I am going to complete these tablets at any cost .
It may be the case that my clay has turned into a shapeless blob, but I can knead and mold it back into flat tablets again . If I don’t have enough, then I remember where I can go to get more . This isn’t square one . Square one was when I was scratching at the dirt with my blunted wooden shovel, fruitlessly searching for clay in the wrong spot . This is way different .
Everything’s going to be fine .
What I’ve learned from my mistakes so far is that I either need to finish these in a single day while the weather is still clear, or relocate to someplace with a roof, otherwise this whole thing is futile . We’ve been blessed by beautiful skies today, and I have three strong, healthy helpers on top of Lutz and Fey to assist me . Whether it’s because my tears and rage were effective at guilting them into helping, or whether they’re just really eager, I don’t know . Either way, with even more people helping me out then there were before, it’s definitely going to take far less time to finish .
“It’s okay, Tory,” I say, “you can go work on gathering . I’ve got Lutz, Fey, and the others helping me . ”
“Got it . …Good luck, everyone!”
Tory’s encouragement helps me pull myself back together, and I get started on once again remaking my clay tablets . Fey and one of his lackeys work on digging out more clay from the ground, then the other two lackeys work with Lutz to knead the clay and form it into the right shape for me . As for me, I’ve found a slender twig and am carefully carving my story into the surface of the first tablet .
Yeah, yeah! I’m feeling great about this!
“I’m going to need about ten ‘clay tablets’ to finish writing my story,” I say, “so once you’ve made ten of them, go do your gathering work . Thanks!”
One after another, clay tablets are quickly dug up, molded, and lined up next to me . After swiftly finishing ten of them, Fey and the others don’t hesitate to race off into the forest .
Lutz, however, stays behind, and starts digging up more clay .
“Lutz, you’re not going with them?”
“Ralph’s here today, so I’m going to stay here and help you!”
“Hmm! Well, I’ve already got enough clay, so do you want to practice writing?”
On a patch of dirt still soft from the rain, I use my stick to write out “Lutz” in the local alphabet .
“What’s that?” he asks .
“That’s your name! If you can’t even write your own name, you won’t be able to go visit other towns, you know?”
Our town basically allows us to walk freely in and out of the gates because they know who we are, but if we try to go to other towns, they’ll ask us for our names and want them written down . That’s what Otto, a former peddler, told me . At our gates, the entry lines for people from other towns are actually separate from those for people from our town, and the checks are much more strict for outsiders . If Lutz wants to travel to other towns someday, he should at least know how to write his own name .
“So, this is how you write my name?”
“Yeah! You know, if you want to travel around, it’s a really good idea to learn how to write . ”
His eyes gleaming, Lutz practices writing his name on the ground over and over . Meanwhile, I continue diligently working on finishing my clay tablets . Carefully, I carve the first story I ever heard in this world into the tablets, in Japanese . With every stroke of my stick, I tell myself that I’m absolutely going to finish my book .
I’ve finished writing out one of the fairy tales my mother told me . Right now, I want to write an anthology, titled something like “Tales My Mother Told Me”, filled with all of the bedtime stories that my mother packed into my head ever since I was reborn into this world .
I carefully wrap each of my tablets in the old rags I brought with me . I stack them in my basket, taking great care to move them as slowly as possible so that I didn’t risk smudging the words written on them into illegibility .
When I finally have all of them stacked neatly in my basket, I heave an enormous sigh . My eyes grow hot, and tears shimmer on their surface .
This is my first real triumph! To be honest, clay tablets aren’t the kind of medium that most people would think of when they’re talking about books, but, no matter what anyone says, this is the first book I’ve finally acquired in this new world .
It was at the end of autumn that I was reborn into this world, and now we’re approaching the end of spring . It has taken a tremendous amount of time, but I have finally acquired my first book .
“Even in a world like this, I can still read a book,” I whisper to myself . “…So, everything’s going to be okay . ”
I was reborn into a world where books are far too expensive for poor people to buy, into the body of a child that can hardly do anything without being stricken with fever . I was fine with doing something reckless, and maybe even dying for it . I’d never once imagined that I’d have the body of such a frail little girl . I’d never even considered that I’d be forced to live out my life in a world without books . I didn’t even have a fragment of attachment to this new life .
However, I finally have a book in my grasp . I’ve finally accomplished the one thing that I truly wanted to do . Now, I have something to live for . Now, I can truly see myself living in this world .
“Maine, you finished it?” asks Tory, returning to the clearing with her pack full .
“Yeah! I’m finished . Thanks to you, and Lutz . ”
The emotions I’m feeling for Tory and Lutz may be those that Maine felt for them, and not mine, but making this book has truly saved me .
I carefully lift the topmost cloth and show the two of them the finished tablet .
“Hey, Maine,” asks Tory, “What did you write on this one?”
“Oh, this is the story of the children from the stars . It’s the story that Mommy told me on my first night . ”
“…Your first night?” she asks, a dubious frown on her face .
“Yeah, this is the first story I can remember . ”
This is the story that my mother quietly recited to me on that first night, when my fever was so painfully high that I couldn’t sleep . Her voice may have been full of love and affection, but it was an affection for someone who was not me . Her words and emotions were things I couldn’t accept, so they passed right through me, and the feelings of isolation within my disconnected mind only grew deeper .
Despite this, as soon as I decided that I was going to make a book in this world, I immediately knew what it was going to be about . If I capture her bedtime stories in my precious, first book, then I feel like I might truly be able to accept her love .
“I don’t want to forget her story at all, so I made sure to write all of it out here so that it’ll never go away . ”
Tory smiles, seeming a little bit anxious . “But, it can still be erased, right?”
“If I leave them like this, yeah, but when I bake them, they’ll get hard, and then you can’t erase them anymore . Then, once I do that, I can always read Mommy’s stories . ”
It’s been almost half a year since I started living here, but this is the first time I’ve ever had an honest, genuine smile .
…This would be an excellent happy note to end my story on, but it does not, of course, end here .
As soon as I returned home, I baked my tablets in our oven . They exploded . No, really . They exploded . I don’t know what you’re trying to tell me, but I’m not lying .
While they were baking in the oven, there was a boom, and the first book I had ever written flew out of the oven in a cloud of dust and chunks of dirt .
I didn’t even have the time to investigate why . First, I was too dumbfounded to ask, then my mother scolded me for quite some time, then she made me promise that I wasn’t going to do anything like that again .
Huh? Doesn’t this mean that I’m actually, completely back to square one now? Ah, wait, no, it still feels like I actually finished something, so… three steps forward, two steps back, maybe?
…What the hell do I try next?
Translator’s notes for this chapter:
1 . The specter from The Ring .
2 . A classic Japanese ghost story . Okiku, the vengeful spirit in the story, is obsessed with finding the missing plate from her collection, which was lost and/or broken through treachery .