Ascendance of a Bookworm – 027
The Road to Washi
I’m going to make washi . 1 My circumstances have finally come together to let me do that . On top of that, it’s not something I’m going to make, but something that Lutz is going to make for me . As a step forward in his job search, of course . Right now, I’m soaring, like a figure skater leaping in the air to spin in a full circle… no, a circle and a half!
Don’t you dare snark about the idea of me jumping! It’s hard in this body!
“Eheheheh . Heheheh . ”
“Maine, I’m glad you’re in a good mood, but… you’re kinda getting a little too excited! Aren’t you going to get sick again?”
“It’s not like I can help it! We’re going to make paper, you know? We can actually make paper, you know? And, if we make paper, then I can make books! Woohoo!!”
Now that books are finally almost in my grasp, how could I possibly not get excited? As I make my way home, practically jumping with every step, Lutz lets out a sigh, like he’s at his wits’ end .
“…Maine, sure, we’re going to make it, but… how exactly are we going to do that? I definitely have no idea . Are we going to need tools? Can we really actually do this?”
Sighing, Lutz grumbles out his objections . In an instant, I come crashing back down to the real world .
…That’s right . It we don’t make all of the tools ourselves, we have nothing!
I’m pretty sure I know the process for making washi . I even remember the names of all the tools we need . However, when it comes to making those tools, I might have read a few books about the sorts of things those obsolete craftsmen used, but I can’t actually remember the fine details . If I don’t have the tools, I won’t be able to make any paper .
…Whoa, our first step is to make the tools, huh… Immediately starting to make paper seems pretty impossible . Aaargh, once again, my modern knowledge just isn’t quite good enough!
“…Hey, Maine . You just got really quiet . Don’t tell me that, after all of that, you can’t actually make it?”
Lutz has a look of extreme worry on his face, so I emphatically shake my head .
“Don’t say that! I definitely know how to make paper . It’s something I’ve been wanting for a very long time . But, I don’t have the strength to cut up enough wood, I still don’t know how to use fire, and I can’t crush the fibers like I need to . I couldn’t ask you to make it for me before, because that would have been too selfish…”
“I told you I was going to help you out, so I would have been fine with that…”
Lutz pouts, looking a little bit chagrined . I’m happy he’s so willing to help, but making paper is going to be very physically intensive work . It’s going to be on a level far above helping me dig up some clay or helping me cut some wood down to size .
“Um, Lutz, all I can do is teach you how to do it . It’s not like the things we’ve been doing before, where I can do them myself but you helped me out, this is going to be something where you do everything by yourself, from the very start to the very end . Do you still want to do it, if it’s like that?”
“Of course . I told you: you come up with things, I’ll make them . ”
Lutz immediately nods his head, but I need more confirmation . I can’t help but think that he might be getting carried away .
“That’s the thing, Lutz . We have to start all the way back with making the tools first . Can you stick with that?”
“…You’ll be helping too, right?”
“Of course, I’ll do whatever I can!”
As I say that, I start thinking . Even when we’re just getting started making the tools, I’m going to have to figure out what kind of tools we’re going to need to make the tools . While I’m at it, I should try searching my house for anything we could use as a substitute . I might make my mother mad again, but we’re going to have no choice but to find substitutes for anything that we don’t have the wherewithal to make ourselves .
“I’m going to write down a list of all the tools we need, and try looking for things we can use for those . If I can’t find any, we’re going to have to make them, though… Lutz, I’d like you to search for wood that we can use to make paper . ”
“We can find all the wood we need in the forest, right?”
“That’s true, but I don’t know what kind of wood is suitable for making paper . ”
I know that plants like the paper mulberry, Oriental paperbush, or ganpi are suitable for making washi, but I don’t know what trees in this world would make good paper .
“Ummm, so, wood that would be easy to use in paper would have long, durable fibers . They’d need to be sticky, too, and easy to bond together, and we’d need to be able to extract a lot of them… and so on, but I don’t actually know how exactly to spot what kind of tree has long, durable fibers . ”
On top of that, a paper mulberry’s wood is only suitable if it’s less than a year old . I remember reading that after two years the fibers start to stiffen and become very difficult to use for making paper .
However, I can’t tell if a tree is one or two years old just by looking at it .
“…You’re telling me to do something complicated like that, but I don’t know how to do it either . ”
“I guess you’re right . For now, I know that there’s soft wood and hard wood, but wood is softer when it’s younger, right?”
“And then it gets harder as it gets older, yeah . ”
Lutz, having more experience than me, knows much more about wood than I do after all . For me, every kind of wood is difficult to cut, but Lutz knows what kinds of wood are easy or hard for him to cut, so it seems he can tell the difference between the softer and harder woods .
“Well, there’s paper we could make that uses either bamboo or bamboo grass, and there’s pros and cons to doing that, but for now, since I think we can make paper out of other kinds of vegetation, we should probably focus on a paper that’s the easiest to make for now, right? Plus, if we’re going to commoditize this, that’s all the more reason that we need to pick a wood that’s easy to use . ”
Lutz nods slightly, mumbling to himself about woods that might be easy to use .
“If we can find one, it would be even better if we could find trees that we could cultivate, so we could make acquiring the raw materials even easier, but we don’t know what kinds of trees are easy to cultivate, right?”
“No, trees that are and aren’t easy to grow are pretty different . There’s definitely trees that can be easily grown . ”
I gnash my teeth at how low Maine’s XP total is after having never gone outside . I’ve only been able to go out to the forest since a month ago . I can’t even cut any wood right now, let alone pick what kinds of wood we should be using .
“Alright, I’ll leave finding the wood to you, Lutz . I want to test a lot of different types and compare their pros and cons, so try coming up with a few kinds of soft-ish wood . After that… I want to find some ‘sunset hibiscus’ . ”
“What the heck is that?”
“The thing I’m thinking of is the root of that tree, but I don’t know if there’s anything like that around here . What I want is a tree that has a goopy, sticky sap… a fruit would do too, I guess . Do you know of any?”
Lutz ponders for a moment, but nothing seems to come to mind immediately .
“No…, I don’t think so . ”
“We’re going to be using it as a glue to stick the plant fibers together, so there has to be something . ”
“I’ll try asking someone who knows a lot about the forest . ”
“Alright, then! I’ll go and work on remembering the process and writing down all the tools we’ll need to make it happen . After that, I’ll start figuring out how we’re going to make everything . ”
By the time we’ve finished laying out what we’re each going to be doing next, we’ve arrived back at my house .
“We’re here,” says Lutz . “Alright, let’s do our best!”
Just making paper seems daunting, but the work of developing a prototype that could actually be turned into a salable good looks like it will require a lot of patient work . As soon as I returned home, I went straight for my slate . What I need to do now is try my best to remember the entire process involved in making washi and write out a list of all the tools I think we’ll need .
The first step of the process is to harvest the trees or plants that we’ll use as raw materials . Lutz has a knife that’s kind of like a machete, so we don’t need anything else in particular here . Right, next step .
When using paper mulberry, you need to steam the dark-colored bark off of the wood first, I think . If that’s the case, we’ll need a steamer . Since I haven’t seen our family use a steamer, if we happen to have one in the kitchen, I’ll be able to borrow it . I quickly search through the kitchen, but don’t find anything . Well, I haven’t tried to drag out any steamed recipes yet, so it’s no surprise that we don’t have a steamer . I add “steamer” and “pot” to the list on my slate . Right, next step .
When the wood is steamed, we immerse it in cold water, then immediately skin off the outer bark while the wood is still hot . In other words, it’ll be best if we don’t have to go far from where we do the steaming to the river, but since we already have knives, we don’t really need any other tools . Right, next step .
Neither letting everything fully dry out nor stripping off the white bark after exposing it to the river for a day requires any particular tools . Since we have a knife, we can make do . Right, next step .
Then, we boil the white bark with ash, making it soft, then remove the excess . In other words, we need a pot and some ash . We can use the same pot that we needed in order to do the steaming, but getting the ashes is going to be difficult . I’m pretty sure my mother isn’t going to give me any, and I don’t know if boiling the wood will produce ash in a sufficient quantity . I add “ash” to the list on my slate . Right, next step .
Then, we expose it to the river for over a day again in order to remove all of the ash, then leave it out in the sun to whiten it . Then, we remove all of the chips and knots . This is, generally, all physical labor . We don’t particularly need any tools here . Right, next step .
Then, we beat the fibers until they have a consistency like cotton . Here, we’ll need some sort of rectangular timber that we can use for that . We should be able to make this out of either fresh wood or firewood . I add “rectangular timber” to the list on my slate . Right, next step .
Next, we thoroughly mix the beaten fibers with water and the sunset hibiscus sap, then spread the resulting pulp on a special frame and let the water drain out . Mixing everything together will need a bucket, tub, or some other kind of bowl . After that comes the wooden frame with a removable bamboo mat, called a suketa, we’ll need in order to spread everything out . I think our suketa is going to be our number-one problem . I add “tub” and “paper frame” to the list on my slate . Right, next step .
Then, we remove the mat from the frame, then transfer the drained paper to a drying bed . We let these stacks of paper dry on their own for a full day . I add “drying bed” to the list on my slate . Right, next .
After that, we slowly apply pressure to the paper using either weights or a clamp to wring the last of the water out . After pressure is applied, we leave everything as-is for another full day, by which point the stickiness from the sunset hibiscus sap will have completely disappeared . I wonder what we could use for weights? Certainly, there’s the big stone weight we use for pressing oil, but is Lutz able to use that? For now, I just add “weights” .
When we’re finished pressing the paper, we carefully peel it from the stacks on the drying bed one at a time, then stick it to another board . I add “flat board” to my list .
Then we let it dry in the sunlight, remove it from the board when it’s dry, and then we’re finished .
“Hmmm, now that I’m thinking everything out, we’re going to need a lot of things, huh…”
The things we need: steamer, pot, rectangular timber, ash, tub, paper frame, drying bed, weights, and a flat board . Also, the raw wood and the sunset hibiscus sap .
I’ve seen photos and illustrations of the process, so I can generally remember how everything fits together, but since I’ve never actually done it for myself, I don’t know any of the finer details . In our pulp, for example, what ratio of fibers to water to sap are we going to need? However, I recall watching a TV show where a particularly un-pop-idol-like pop idol went to a rural village and made some paper, and if a pop star can do it, then there’s no way that I can’t do it too .
I need to remember more details about that program . Memory, do your best! …Well, hmm, that pop idol… was borrowing someone else’s tools, right? She didn’t have to make her own? And she had someone guiding her through the process, didn’t she? Rrrrrrgh .
It’s not just like I only have theoretical knowledge . I have indeed personally made paper before: in home economics class once, we made a sheet of recycled paper the size of a postcard out of a milk carton . I think it’s better than nothing at all, but it’s certainly not something I can actually rely on .
For now, let’s try taking on the production of a postcard-sized sheet . It’ll be easier to build the tools at a small scale as well, and when we’re experimenting with different kinds of wood, small batches are better to make than large .
“So, Lutz,” I say, “how about we start making the steamer first?”
In Chinese cooking, they use a round wooden basket to steam food . Making something like that would be very difficult, but making a four-sided wooden box shouldn’t be quite so hard . I sketch out the design on my slate and show it to Lutz .
“Making it should be really simple, but do you have any nails?”
“Uh?! Can’t you… put notches in the wood and join them together with those?”
“What are you talking about?”
Making the tools has hit a snag . We don’t have the tools we need to make the tools .
We may be able to cut wood to size, but we don’t have nails . Plus, nails here are not priced such that a child could buy them if they decided they wanted to use some . Plus, although we have the tools to cut wood, we don’t have any of the smaller implements we’d need for any fine work .
It would be great if I could just borrow my dad’s tools, carve out some joints, and put everything together like an old-school carpenter, but there’s no way I have enough knowledge of that kind of skilled labor to actually make use of it . Incidentally, although Lutz can do many things for me if I just give him an explanation, I can’t call any of it skilled labor .
Nails are something people use in their day-to-day life, so there’s no way we wouldn’t be able to go to a hardware store and just buy them . The problem is our purchasing power . All of our options are suddenly closed .
“What are we going to do, Maine?”
“Um, I’ll consult with Otto . He’s familiar with things like market prices and tradesmen, so I might be able to get nails if I help out…”
Since I can’t even do any labor for my family, I have no choice but to go to the one place where someone will actually pay me for my efforts .
The next day, I go to the gates and ask Otto about it .
“Mister Otto, I have a question… Um, do you know how much nails tend to cost? Also, if you know a tradesman that sells them cheaply, I’d really appreciate it if you could introduce me to them…”
“…Why nails? I don’t think you’re going to be able to make use of them, Maine . ”
That’s right . I don’t have enough strength to actually use a hammer .
For someone who used to ask for slate pencils and ink to suddenly start asking for nails must be incomprehensible to him . As he tilts his head to the side in wonder, I sigh, then start to explain .
“I want to start making the tools I’ll need to make paper, but I don’t actually have the tools I’ll need to make those tools . ”
“Ahahahahaha…!” Otto bursts into laughter, slapping the table as he laughs wildly .
“It’s not funny!” I say, pouting at him . Of course, just the other day, I harshly declared to Benno that I was absolutely going to make it by spring, so for me to immediately turn around and say that I can’t even start on the tools might actually be really hilarious . For me, however, it’s a really serious matter .
Otto wipes a tear from his eye as he calms down, a wide grin spreading across his face . I can clearly see that this is the slightly menacing smile of a calculating merchant . As he chuckles pleasantly at me, I’m suddenly very much on my guard .
“If you teach me how to make whatever it is you put in your hair, how about I finance your nail purchases?”
The value of what he’s asking for does not at all match what he’s offering . This is an absurdly huge ripoff . If Otto were to then let that information slip to Benno, then I would lose one of my most important cards that I could use against him . The price of that is far too high .
“…Just for some nails, I can’t tell you how to make it . When I think about Benno’s reaction the other day, I think it might be something very profitable . ”
“…You’ve got good eyes,” he mutters, with the tiniest gleam of admiration in his eyes .
As I stall with a vague sort of answer, I frantically start to think . I’ve got no other rope to cling to besides Otto’s, so if I lose him, I’ve got nothing . I have to come to some sort of compromise here .
…Why would Mister Otto be so interested in my simple all-in-one shampoo?
Otto, unlike Benno, is not a merchant . Therefore, I don’t think he wants to bring it to market as a new commodity . It might make sense if he wanted to get Benno indebted to him .
…Otto is a comparatively neat person, but he doesn’t seem to be the type to care enough about his appearance that he’d go to the trouble of making something just for it . If I really had to say it, the people who’d want to do that would be women… his wife?! Is it his wife?!
“…Mister Otto, it’s too much for me to tell you how to make it, but if you wanted to exchange goods, I’d be okay with that . ”
“Yeah?” he says, raising his eyebrows a little bit .
Based on his look of interest, it seems like learning my methods might not actually be the important thing here . I fix my gaze on my tiny chance of victory and take another step forward .
“…Ummm, that’s right . I can teach Miss Corinna how to use it, and show her how to make her hair smooth and glossy . I could just give you the product, but it would be useless without the instructions, so that’s what I can offer you . ”
“Sounds good to me . It’s settled, then!”
Otto nods in agreement, looking like he didn’t even give it a second thought . I had thought that bringing up Corinna would be my most effective move, but I didn’t think that such a simple thing would take me quite that far .
“Well then,” he says, “come over to my house on my next day off . Let’s make the exchange then, alright?”
Just like that, it was decided that I’d bring my simple all-in-one shampoo to Otto’s house on his next day off, then play beautician (a shampoo-only beautician) for the day .
I breathe a little sigh of relief at having somehow managed to secure some nails, but my own stock of shampoo is already almost entirely gone . On top of that, because this shampoo is a consumable good if you can’t make more of it, from now on it’s very likely that Otto will insist on making more trades in the future .
“Lutz, I got us some nails . ”
“Seriously? Wow, Maine, you’re really amazing, aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I’m going to get some in exchange for giving Otto some ‘simple all-in-one shampoo’, but… I don’t have much of it left . Would you mind helping me make some for me today?”
“Sure, sounds good . ”
Better yet, if I make a little more of it to put aside, why couldn’t I use it as a source of additional fundraising?
“If we had a little more time, we could gather melil to use for this, but in this season, rio is the best fruit for it . ”
Lutz and I gather rio fruit from the forest, then go back to my place to squeeze the oil out of it . Lutz still can’t use the big stone weight to press it down, so we smash it out with a hammer . I take the freshly-squeezed oils and throw various herbs in one by one .
“Hmmm!” says Lutz . “That’s really simple to make, isn’t it?”
“That’s right . The important part of this is the kind of oil you use and the kinds of herbs you mix it with . So, Lutz, even if we’re going to be selling the finished product in exchange for the things that we want, we can never show anyone how it’s made . ”
“Since it’s so simple, once you show someone how to do it, they can make it themselves, right? You won’t be able to trade with them ever again, you know?”
“Ah, okay! I get it . ”
I take a portion of the completed shampoo, put it in a somewhat small container, and hold it out for Lutz . He looks down at it dubiously, head tilted to one side .
“I don’t need any, though? Maine, you’re the one getting money and buying things, so you should hold onto that . ”
“This is your share after making it, Lutz . How about you use it to make Mrs . Carla happy? Hasn’t she been pestering you about what you did to your hair?”
After I made Lutz’s hair look good to prepare for his interview with Otto, his mother started persistently assaulting me with questions . I haven’t met her since then, so I’m sure that she’s turned her questioning on Lutz .
“Oh, thanks a bunch! You’re a lifesaver, Maine . ”
With a happy look, he takes the container from me . I grin broadly at him, imitating Otto’s smile .
“Mrs . Carla is a very forceful woman, so you have to make sure that you don’t let her get the secret of how to make it out of you . This is good practice for giving someone something without telling them how it was made . When we become merchants, we’re going to have a whole lot of things that we’re going to need to keep secret, after all . ”
“…I really want to practice on something easier, though…” he says, smiling dejectedly .
I still don’t have those nails in hand . The road to washi will be a long one .
Translator’s notes for this chapter:
1 . Washi is a kind of paper that was made in Japan, using primarily manual methods .