Ascendance of a Bookworm – 021
I’m Making Mokkan!
Today is the first day of Tory’s new apprenticeship, and I have been seriously panicking . The responsibilities that have been thrust on me are things that I’m almost surely incapable of actually doing . I was thinking that I could use all of my modern-day knowledge to make up for my other deficiencies, but none of that knowledge is actually the slightest bit applicable .
Tory was seriously amazing as an older sister .
First of all, I can’t fetch water . I can’t even pull it up from the well! I lack the necessary strength . On top of that, even though I can only draw up a little to begin with, hauling it up the stairs is extremely difficult as well . If I wanted to get a single bucket’s worth of water up to my home, I need to make five trips . Our household, however, doesn’t need just one bucket of water . I need to fill up our entire jug . When my mother helps me fetch the water, she manages to fill the jug in about the same amount of time it takes me to fill just one bucket .
I’m useless .
When it comes time to start preparing lunch, I need to light the fire in the stove . When I was still in school, we went on class camping trips, so I know how to stack logs for making a fire . You stack the fat fuel logs with the slender, easier-to-burn kindling in a way that air can easily pass through, then use some sort of tinder, like dry grass, that catches sparks and burns hot and quick . That, I can do .
However, I can’t actually light the fire . When I went camping, we had lighters . Here, we have flint, which I have no idea how to use at all . I watched Tory do it once, then later tried to mimic what she did .
When I struck the two chunks of flint against each other as hard as I could, sparks flew out, as could be expected . The flash of glittering sparks right before my eyes caused me to flinch back in shock, dropping both stones to the floor . Ever since then, I’ve been afraid that those sparks might burn me like the sparks from fireworks, so I haven’t been able to muster up the courage to strike them together hard enough to spark . Eventually, my mother wound up doing it .
I’m really useless .
If it’s helping out with cooking prep work, I can do at least that… or so I thought . However, the kitchen knife is so heavy that I have to use both hands to lift it . Plus, when I look at the trussed-up birds we need to prepare, I freeze up . All I can really do is chop up the ingredients that I can use a smaller knife on and provide recipe ideas . There’s very little else I can actually do in the kitchen . I’m so short that I can’t even stir things around in a frying pan, even if I’m given a stool to stand on . My mother really does praise me on my recipes, but my lackluster contributions only serve to make me increasingly depressed .
I’m seriously useless .
Tory arrives home from her first day at work to find me sitting in the corner, a dull, depressed look on my face . “What’s wrong, Maine?” she asks .
I’m too depressed to even answer, so my mother does so for me . “…She tried to help out today, but couldn’t do very much at all . I think she’s depressed about how little she could actually do . ”
Yes, Tory, now . It may have taken some time, but I finally realized it . I am completely worthless .
“…I tried to do so many different things, but I couldn’t do any of them at all,” I mumble .
“Well, we know what your condition is,” says my mother reassuringly, “so as long as you’re trying your best it’ll be alright, right?”
“Also, there’s nobody better at cleaning than Maine!”
I have some experience pushing a broom and wiping things down; those are things that I can manage to do even if I only barely have the strength to do it . If I put too much power into it, though, my fever comes back immediately . Also, my constant cleaning efforts are not done because I want to help the family out . I’m doing it because I absolutely cannot stand living in such a filthy environment . It’s for my own sake, not my family’s .
In modern Japan, where we have machines to do all of the heavy work for us, I could clean, do laundry, and cook from start to finish, all by myself . Here, however, I can’t do any of that at all . Honestly, I didn’t think that it would be anywhere near this hard . Tory’s only a year older than me and she can do it with no problems . I, however, am stuck with this inexplicably weak body, and am just dead weight .
When I somehow got reincarnated, I really would have preferred a much more robust physique . At least, robust enough to not be a hindrance .
“Ahaha, Maine,” laughs my father, “are you bothered that much by being useless?”
“…Yeah, I am . ”
“Well, even if that’s the case… I never really had any high hopes to begin with . ”
Huh? Why is he saying something so unexpectedly cruel? Why is he smiling?
“Well, I think it’s a bad thing that you keep collapsing as if you’re about to die . I think you’ve done more than enough already to make yourself stronger . ”
Tory is the one to shrug her shoulders at that . “I think what you’re saying is right,” she says, “but at this rate nobody’s ever going to hire her, right? She can’t do anything at all . ”
My father shakes his head . “Not at all, she can work at the gate!”
“Huh? What can she do there?”
Tory and my mother both look at my father in bewilderment . Why they’re bewildered, I have no idea .
Have they just been not paying any attention at all when I’ve been telling them what I do all day at the gate? Or did they just not believe me at all?
“What can she do? Paperwork, of course! Even now, when she goes to the gate she does some work as Otto’s little assistant . …More than half the time, he’s teaching her how to write, though . ”
“Really?! I thought she was just going there to take breaks!”
“I thought she had to have been making up all of those ridiculous stories!”
Tory, why are you acting so surprise? Also, mother, that’s mean! Their excessively honest reactions feel like a stab in the gut .
“She’s especially suited for work that involves a lot of calculations . If she wanted, after her baptism she could work at the gates officially . How about it, Maine? Want to come work with your daddy?”
“Huh? Nuh-uh . I’m going to run a ‘bookstore’ or be a ‘librarian’ . ”
Unfortunately, I have zero ambition to follow my father to work every day in order to do the gatekeepers’ paperwork . However, this is a world that hasn’t yet seen bookstores or libraries, so of course everyone looks at me doubtfully, not understanding what I said at all .
“…Aaahh, Maine . What are those?”
“Someone who sells books… so, a merchant, I guess? Hmmm, maybe being a merchant isn’t quite right for me, but I’m going to do a job that involves a lot of books . ”
“Well, I don’t really get what you’re saying, but I think that it’s great if you can do the things you want to do . For now, doing the things you can do is just fine . Half a year ago, you couldn’t walk to the forest at all . You could barely even go outside! Now, you can go in and out of the house as much as you want on your own . ”
“…Yeah . ”
Today, I was told that I needed to go out and do my best to gather some firewood, so I strapped a wicker basket to my back and went with Tory off to the forest . It’s true that I can indeed walk all the way to the forest, just like my family said, but by the time I get there, I need to take a long rest, and if I’m not very careful about how much I move around I might need to spend the entire next day in bed .
I really hate this feeble body .
When we got to the forest, I took a break to catch my breath, then I got up and started to help search for firewood . All I’m doing is looking around for branches that have fallen off already, but Tory actively searches for low-hanging branches, then hacks at them with a knife that’s like a small machete . They break off with a creak and a snap!
“Wow, Tory really is amazing…” I say aloud, once again impressed by Tory’s raw competency . “I’ve got to keep working hard too, doing whatever I can . ”
I redouble my efforts, working until I run out of breath . I sit down on a nearby rock to take a break . Without wasting any time, I pull out my knife, intending to start make mokkan .
“Whoa, this is really heavy,” I sigh, feeling the weight of the dully gleaming blade in my hands . Knives aren’t something that I have literally zero familiarity with . In Japan, I used kitchen knives and box cutters in my day-to-day life .
However, I have basically no experience with whittling . What little I do have comes from elementary school, where we had a lesson on sharpening our pencils with little blades . At the time, however, I decided that using a pencil sharpener was good enough for me and barely paid any attention . Now, I’m regretting that decision .
Even if I decide to brave the dangers and try making mokkan anyway, I still don’t know how to use a knife, though!
When I can’t do more than timidly scrape wood off a pencil, there’s no way I’d be able to wield a knife like this with any amount of skill . Will I really be able to make mokkan?
As an experiment, I dig through my pile of gathered branches until I find a thin branch, then I try to shave a layer off of it . It’s difficult to manage with my tiny, weak hands, but I peel off a sizable strip of bark, revealing the color of the wood inside .
Ah! This might be a little bit on the difficult side, but I think I can do it!
I can simultaneously practice using my knife and make mokkan as well, killing two birds with one stone . With glee, I start pulling out the pieces of wood that I had gathered, whittling them until they’re long, narrow, straight, and flat, then cut them to the same length and lay them out next to each other . Once I tie these together with a thin cord, I’ll be able to roll them up like a scroll, and they’ll really be mokkan . I think I can turn these into something about the size of a page from a memo pad .
Ancient civilizations, ancestors, thank you for your magnificent wisdom . Mother, father, thank you for this magnificent knife . It is thanks to you that I can make these mokkan .
Since the raw materials for these are just pieces of wood that I can pick up from the ground, this involves far less labor than carefully extracting grass fibers to make papyrus or doing the back-breaking excavation work needed to get the clay to make tablets .
At my level of skill, I need to whittle away bit by bit to get each stick planed flat enough that I can write on it . It would be amazing if I could slice it all off in a single, powerful stroke, but there’s really no point in wishing for the moon . I steadily whittle away at each stick, piling more and more finished mokkan next to me . With my hands as they are now, all I can whittle are fine, slender sticks . If I want to be able to actually write a book, the number of these things I’ll need is not trivial at all .
“Maine, what are you making to replace your clay tablets?”1 says Lutz as he walks over, seemingly done with gathering firewood for the day, and leans in to inspect my handiwork .
That was not the question I expected him to ask at all . I look at him quizzically .
“…Huh? Why do you think I’m making these to replace my tablets?”
“Because you looked like you were having so much fun, right?”
“Huh? I looked like I was having fun?”
“Yeah, you looked like you wanted to rub your face all over those sticks . It was the same kind of expression you had when you saw all the clay for the first time, you know?”
Huh? I was sitting alone, whittling, with an expression that looked like I wanted to bury my face in a pile of wood? …Wouldn’t that make me look really strange?
…Yiiikes! I didn’t realize that at all! That’s extremely embarrassing!
The embarrassment of having that so unexpectedly pointed out to me makes my insides squirm, but Lutz is very focused on examining my handiwork .
“So, what are you making?”
“…I’m making ‘mokkan’ . ”
“’Moe-kahn’? Are you going to be writing on these too?”
“Yeah, which is why I need a lot of them . I’m not very strong, so I can’t make them any bigger than this . ”
I pick up my knife again and start whittling away . Lutz sits down next to me and grabs a somewhat larger stick of his own .
“I’ll help you out! Do me a favor in return though: the next time you see that Otto guy you were talking about, could you ask him something for me?”
“What do you want to know?”
He glances around the forest clearing nervously, then leans in close to whisper in to me quietly . “I want to hear what it’s like to be a peddler…”
A while ago, he shared with me his dreams of becoming a peddler or a minstrel, traveling from town to town and seeing the world .
Based on the fact that he was so cautious about checking to see if anyone was around and the fact that he kept his voice so low, I wonder if this world looks down on peddlers and minstrels? I don’t really know . My personal opinion, lacking any grounding in this world’s common sense, is definitely not worth as much to Lutz as what I could get from Otto if I asked him about it .
“He’s a very busy man, but I’ll try asking him . He might refuse, though, sorry . ”
“That’s okay,” he replies .
He breathes a sudden sigh of relief, looking like someone who has just set down a very heavy burden . He’s finally found someone to talk to about something that he couldn’t share with anyone .
We don’t talk very much after that, and just quietly sit making mokkan . It looks like Lutz carries a large, wide-bladed knife like Tory’s, so he’s able to easily turn relatively thick branches into several wide boards each . I take those and use my own knife to clean up the writing surfaces until both sides are flawless .
I wonder if I’ll be able to get someone to give me some of the ink that we use at the gate?
Fundamentally, ink is something that is used with paper, so it’s not the kind of thing that you can ordinarily find in stores around here . Now that I think about it, the ink at the gate is locked up as carefully as the parchment is . It might not just be paper that’s expensive, but ink as well .
Hopefully, I’ll be able to convince Otto to stop paying my salary in slate pencils and to switch over to paying me ink . And, while I’m at it, I’ll be able to convey Lutz’s request .
The next day, I go to the gates .
It’s a day where Tory has work and is thus not available to supervise me, so I head to the gates to study . Lately, the number of words I’ve been learning that are actually usable day-to-day has been increasing, which makes me very happy .
Starting today, we have three new apprentice soldiers; Tory’s contemporaries . Otto has to teach them how to read, write, and do math, so he’s suddenly very busy . After he finishes with training the new recruits, he immediately returns to the duty room and does all of the normal day-to-day work he has to do .
I myself am very busy, between learning new vocabulary and helping with computation, so I don’t have very many opportunities to talk . When I notice Otto finish up one set of paperwork and start working to clean up the ink bottle, I seize my chance .
“Mister Otto, I’ve got a question I want to ask, is now okay?”
“Sure, what is it?”
“How do you become a peddler?”
“Huh?! Maine, you want to become a peddler?! Huh? Wait a minute! Is this my fault? Squad Leader’s going to murder me!”
With huge, panicked eyes, Otto hunches forward over the desk, muttering hysterically . I’m shocked by this sudden display, and quickly wave my hands to try to dispel his fears .
“No, no, it’s not for me, it’s for a friend . ”
“Ah! Well then, you should tell them that they shouldn’t try . ”
“Oh, it really is like that?”
Based on his terse response, it would seem like peddling is indeed an objectionable profession .
“What do you mean by ‘like that’?” he says, his eyes narrowing . I briefly contemplate how to phrase things in an easy-to-convey manner, then open my mouth to speak .
“Ummm, when my friend asked me about it, he made sure that nobody was around, and he was whispering, so I thought that maybe people thought it wasn’t a good job to do . ”
“Well, his parents would give him a good talking to, anyway . ”
“Also, peddlers are always traveling, right? They’re always going here and there, thinking about what they need to buy in one place and what they need to sell in another, right? Settling down is a completely different lifestyle, where you can have familial bonds and even repeat customers, so it’s not the kind of thing that you’d think a kid who lives in a town would suddenly think that they’d want to do…”
That kind of free-wandering nomadic lifestyle seems like the kind of thing that the children of farmers, who are expected to settle down, would be drawn to . Life is so fundamentally different here, to the point where my own common knowledge doesn’t connect with it at all . Working seems to be far more strict of a thing than I was expecting .
Every day, I do things that completely backfire, and I often have no idea of why they could have possibly done so . You’d think that at some point the correct answer to be to do nothing, but even if I did nothing I’d still wind up being criticized . There’s no manual for the mass of unwritten rules that govern daily life here . I, the woman who has no idea what the correct thing to do is in this unexpected alternate reality and just wants to shut herself inside forever, do truly understand the barriers of common sense .
Well, if I were to lock myself inside, I wouldn’t have any books, so I wouldn’t have anything to do, so I basically have to go outside anyway .
“…Well, if you know that much, why didn’t you tell him?”
“Hmm, well, I think that it would be better if he heard it from you, Otto . I’ve been living in a town all my life, but you’ve got a lot of experience, so I think he’d listen to you . Also, my daddy said that you have some connections with the merchant guild, right? If my friend can’t become a peddler, then maybe he could do his apprenticeship under a shopkeeper instead . I was thinking that maybe he could still leave the town from time to time to go buy things . ”
As far as Lutz’s family goes, I think they’d be much more comfortable if his travels were to known parts of the world on official business, rather than aimlessly wandering through distant lands .
“Ahhh, I see what’s happening here!” he says, the corners of his mouth quirking up in a sly grin . “Since you’re making all this effort to be the middleman here, this kid must be your favorite, right?”
He seems to have caught a whiff of a secret love story . I shrug my shoulders .
“It’s not that he’s my favorite,” I say off-handedly, “it’s that he’s always helping me out, so I feel like I should return the favor before the debts start stacking up too high . ”
“The kid who’s helping you, is that the blond one?”
Otto must have seen us one on of the times that Lutz, serving as my pacemaker, came through the gate, dragging my exhausted self back from the forest, stopping briefly to deliver a report to my father in exchange for a little bit of pocket money .
“That’s right . I know that you’re super busy with the newcomers, though, so if you can’t do it…”
“This is actually the least-busy season in the entire year, so this is a great time . How about during the next holiday?”
“Thanks, Mister Otto!”
Although, if this is supposed to be the least busy season, how much work am I going to actually have when it’s time for me to help out with the treasurer’s report and the budget compilations? I’ve already agreed to help, though, so that’s not something I want to thinking about .
“Ah! Mister Otto, I’ve got one more thing I want to ask: could I please have a little bit of this ink, if you can?”
“You mean this ink?” he says, frowning as he taps the closed lid of the inkwell with one finger . The black liquid within sloshes slightly .
I nod vigorously . “Could you maybe pay me in ink instead of slate pencils from now on?”
“That’s three years’ wages, and I’m not giving you an advance . ”
His instantaneous reply leaves me dumbfounded, my eyes wide with shock . I want to believe that I absolutely must have misheard him, but his expression is very serious as he starts to explain .
“After you move from assistant to apprentice, your wages are going to change, but right now, even including the bonus you’ll get from helping with the budget, it’ll take you three years, I think . ”
“Three years?! …That’s expensive!”
My expression is one of utter shock . There’s no way I could have possibly expected that it would be that expensive . Otto’s wry smile says that he’s going to have to start teaching me the names of the things on our budget .
“Even here, we only ever use it for the official paperwork that the nobility gives us, right? It’s far too pricey of a thing for a child to play with . ”
In other words, this is absolutely not a thing that I will be able to obtain for myself . Understood .
…If that’s the case, what should I use to write on my mokkan? Even if I have the boards, they’re useless if I can’t write on them, right?