Ascendance of a Bookworm – 046
We Made It At Once
As soon as we finish with dinner, my father heads immediately for bed, since he has to work the dawn shift tomorrow . In order to make sure we don’t disturb him while he’s trying to sleep, the rest of us relocate to the kitchen, where we can quietly busy ourselves with whatever work we can do, quietly, to kill time before we need to go to bed as well .
Now that my father’s gone into the bedroom and started getting himself ready for bed, I jump right onto the topic of winter handiwork .
“So, today, Mister Benno told me that the hairpins we made for Freida were getting really famous, and there’s a lot of people wanting to buy them, so he wanted to know if we could maybe get some of our winter handiwork done early . He says he wants more like Tory’s hairpin . ”
“…Well, it’s not like we can’t, but…”
Tory and my mother exchange a glance, then frown doubtfully at me . The rest of that sentence is clearly written on their faces: it’s not like they can’t, but it would be way too much work to accelerate production enough . Their reaction is exactly what I expected, so I go fetch my tote bag and pull out the proof: two medium-copper coins, which jingle as I set them down on the table .
“It’s just a little bit, but I was able to get him to let me hold onto some money in advance, so if you can get one done, I can pay you for it!”
In the next instant, the two of them abruptly stand up, their chairs clattering behind them, and move to the part of the table closest to the stove, where it’s just a little bit brighter .
I’ve suddenly been left behind, sitting dumfounded in my chair like an empty-headed fool . Meanwhile, Tory has dug out enough slender needles for the three of us, and my mother has disappeared into the storeroom to fetch the basket full of thread . I’m a little overwhelmed by how perfectly in sync the two of them are, but I hop down from my chair and pull it over to the table . As it clatters along the floor behind me, my mother calls out to me .
“Maine, do you have a sample we can base this off of?”
“Um? It’s just like Tory’s, I think?”
Reacting instantly to my words, Tory immediately spins around and heads to get her hairpin out of her wooden storage box . Thanks to her rustling about in the bedroom as she searches for her hairpin, I can hear my father groggily speak up .
“What’s happening? Is something wrong?”
“Nothing’s wrong, Gunther,” replies my mother, calling to him from the kitchen . “Good night!”
By the time I’ve gotten my chair over the table and climbed up onto it, the preparations for our handiwork have been completed .
“Maine,” asks my mother, “what colors should we use?”
She rummages around within the basket of threads, but I haven’t actually told her what colors to use yet . All I’ve said so far is that the design needs to be like Tory’s hairpin .
“We don’t know what the customers’ hair color or favorite colors are, so Mister Benno told me that he wants ones with lots of different colors . Let’s do these like Tory’s and pick three colors, and make the same number of flowers . ”
“Got it . How about white, yellow, and red?”
“I think that’ll be cute!”
The instant the words leave my mouth, my mother starts knitting ferociously . Since she helped make Tory’s hairpin last winter, she already knows how to do it, and now she’s working so very, very quickly . In the approximately fifteen minutes it takes me to knit one flower, she’s churned out five . Soon, we’ve knitted four of each and turned it into a little bouquet .
“He’ll be happy if there’s a bunch of different ones to choose from, right? Maybe I should do white, yellow, and blue…? The same colors as mine . Maine, what are you gonna pick?”
Tory giggles happily to herself as she digs through the many different colors, picking out three that she likes . She seems very pleased with the hairpin that I’d made for her last year, which makes me happy as well .
“I think I’ll do pink, red, and green . The green flowers are going to look like little leaves, which I think will be really cute . ”
“Yeah! Really cute . …Hey, hey, Maine, how do you make these?”
Tory, probably thinking that she’d better not disturb our mother as she single-mindedly weaves away, scoots her chair next to me, it clattering against the wooden floor . Since the hairpin that we’re using as an example had been made for Tory’s sake, she hadn’t had any part in making it .
“Oh, it’s not really that hard . So, you loop it like this, and then you thread it through like this…”
I explain to Tory how to weave these tiny flowers, demonstrating as I went . Since these are much simpler than the roses we made for Freida, Tory picked up on it immediately .
“Got it! Thanks, Maine . ”
She clatteringly drags her chair back to its original position, then starts quietly, steadily knitting . After a while, once I’ve finished my third flower, I glance up at the rest of the table, and am overwhelmed by the sheer difference in quantity . My mother has already finished enough little flower to make an entire hairpin, and Tory has six flowers rolling around in front of her .
Whoa, now these are some sewing beauties .
Both my mother and Tory move their hands so quickly that my own movements can’t even compare . They can do these in practically the blink of an eye . I may be the one who brought this arts-and-crafts stuff here, but now I’m being outstripped in both speed of production and quality of product . I decide that, at the very least, whatever I make is not going to be obviously inferior to what they make when compared, and I start moving my needles again .
Ordinarily, winter handiwork is done while we’re trapped inside by the snow and left with far, far too much time on our hands . It’s something that we do because there’s nothing else to do, and we idly chat with each other while doing it . Tonight, however, thanks the gleam of the coins lined up on the table, the two of them are focusing their entire effort on knitting as quickly as they can, with not a single word coming out of their mouths .
“Alright, done! Now what, Maine?”
I look up, startled by Tory’s sparklingly enthusiastic voice, and see that she has twelve flowers lined up in front of her .
“Whoa, Tory, that was fast! You’re really amazing . Ummm, after this, we sew them onto a bit of cloth… wait, argh, cloth! I didn’t account for cloth!”
“Usually,” my mother says, “we provide our own materials for winter handiwork, so it’s okay if you use whatever scraps we have lying around here . ”
My mother has already retrieved a scrap of cloth and sewn her little flowers onto it, turning it into something that looks like a proper hairpin .
“…When I go see Mister Benno to collect the money for these, I’ll put in a request for some cloth, too . ”
“He’s already paying us two whole medium copper coins for each of these, so there’s no need to go that far . ”
…What? Man, how unfair is ordinary winter handiwork?
Even as I was deciding for myself that I’d have added cloth to my calculations by the time winter rolls around and we get started in earnest, Tory has already brought a basket full of scrap cloth out of the storage room .
“Look at the one Mommy’s finished as an example . Sew the flowers on, but don’t put too many of the same color close together . If you sew everything together so that you can’t see the cloth beneath, then it’ll really look like a little bouquet of flowers . ”
“Got it, thanks!” replies Tory .
By the time Tory finishes putting together her second hairpin, it’s almost about time to pack everything away for the evening . Ultimately, I was able to complete about half of the flowers for one hairpin, Tory made an entire pin herself, and my mother’s eighty percent along the way towards making her second .
“Now then, here is today’s pa~ay!”
I hand the two of them two coins each, and put the two finished hairpins in my box for later .
“Alright now,” says my mother, “you two go to bed . ”
“What about you, Mom?” asks Tory .
“I’ll just finish up this half-complete one here, first . ”
She points at the eighty-percent completed hairpin in front of her with a grim smile . At her speed, she’ll be done in no time flat . Tory and I quietly head for bed, taking care not to wake our father in the process .
I wonder, though; why is it that by the time we wake up there are two finished hairpins sitting on top of the table? …You pulled an all-nighter, mother . Tory didn’t want to go to bed last night, so now she’s gonna be mad .
“Moooom, no fair! Why’d you get to stay up late?”
“Sorry, Tory . Now, it’s time for you to go to work! Take care, take care . ”
Tory sulks furiously as my mother apologetically ushers her out the door . With an extremely disagreeable expression, she runs off, yelling “as soon as I get home I’m going to make lots, okay?” Once she’s gone, my mother hands me the two completed bouquets, and I give her four coins in return .
“Here’s the money, so that I don’t forget by the time you get home from work . I’m going to be going to Mister Benno’s shop again today . I’ve gotta go get the pin parts for these from Lutz, get them finished up, and get paid, otherwise I can’t get the rest of the money for you and Tory . ”
“Alright . Take care of yourself today, Maine! And say hello to Mister Benno for me . ”
My mother tucks the coins into her coin purse, then starts heading out the door . “Let’s work hard tonight, too!” she says with a broad smile as she waves goodbye . She shuts the door behind her firmly, and I hear the clack of the lock as she turns it . I keep smilingly waving goodbye until I hear her footsteps fade away, then let out an exhausted sigh .
Crap . The power of money is way too strong . I hadn’t thought I’d get anywhere close to this kind of speedup . The fact that my mother would stay up so late to keep working was far beyond my expectations . If I don’t get these hairpins finished up and sold so that I can replenish my cash reserves, I’m going to be in serious trouble tonight .
“Well, first things first, we gotta peel off all the tronbay bark, though . ”
I have no idea when Lutz will be by to come pick me up, so I start making sure that I’ve got everything ready to head out on a moment’s notice . First off, I collect a couple of the potato-like kalfe roots . Then, I grab my slate, slate pencils, and calculator so that we can study while the bark is steaming . Since we’re going to Benno’s afterwards, I make sure not to forget to bring my ordering set, too . Finally, In order to complete my own half-finished hairpin, I grab my knitting needles and thread, my seven already-done flowers, a scrap of cloth, and a needle and thread for sewing everything together .
I pass the time waiting for Lutz to arrive by working on more flowers, my needles making tiny little movements as I knit . After I manage to finish two, I hear a pounding at the door, followed by Lutz calling out, “Maine, you home?”
“Good morning, Lutz! Hey, about those pins, did you finish any?”
“I got five done so far…?”
“Bring all of them with us . I’m bringing my needles and thread too . We can finish these up while we’re steaming . We have to sell these to Mister Benno tonight . ”
When I mumble that we wound up finishing four of them last night, Lutz’s eyes go wide .
“Wh… That’s way too fast, though?! I thought you said those flowers were super hard to make and took a crazy long time…”
“Yeah, I had no idea they’d get done so quickly, either, so I’m honestly in a bit of a hurry now . ”
“…Got it . You just need me to bring the pins, right? Anything else?”
There is one more thing that Lutz absolutely cannot forget to bring today .
“What about the butter? Did you get any?”
“So I didn’t hear you wrong, huh… I’ll go get some . Wait downstairs for me after you lock up, okay?”
It seems that, somehow, he hasn’t prepared any . That was a close call, I nearly missed out on being able to eat steamed, buttered potatoes . I wave as Lutz deftly runs down the stairs, gather up the things I’d prepared, and head outside .
“Man, it’s cold…”
There’s no sign of anyone else around our warehouse, which is piercingly cold, overpowering the warmth of the clear sunlight shining down . Since there’s no hearth inside the warehouse that we can light a fire in, we get set up right in front of the warehouse so that we can steam the tronbay and strip off the bark .
After we put our bags inside, Lutz piles up some rocks to make a stove and sets the pot on top of it while I line up pieces of tronbay inside our steamer . In no time flat, though, the steamer fills up completely .
“Lutz, looks like we’re going to need another steamer . ”
“I’ll go get it . ”
Previously, all we were doing was working on prototypes, so we never really needed to steam that much wood at once . However, this time, we need to steam all of the raw material that we have on hand . Since we’d had another steamer ready from the start so we could steam two layers at once, Lutz kindly goes to retrieve it for me .
“These okay to put on the pot yet?”
“Yeah, I’m just about finished getting this wood stacked up in it . ”
While Lutz gets the steamers situated on top of the pot, I stack up the rest of the tronbay . Then, I take the two kalfe roots I brought with me and make a cross-shaped cut on each of them with my knife so that the heat can get into them better, then I line them up in the steamer with the wood . Once these steam for about twenty minutes, I’ll finally be able to eat delicious, buttery, steamed potatoes (although they’re not actually potatoes) .
Sitting in front of the pot, close to the fire, I get back to work on making tiny flowers . Since it takes me about fifteen minutes to make each flower, by the time I’m finished up, plus the time it’ll take to get everything squared away, the tubers should be just about finished .
“Lutz, could you get some of the leftover bamboo in the warehouse and make me a couple long sticks? Pointy ones, pointier than the ones you made last time . ”
“Why, you ask? I need them to check to see if the ‘buttered potatoes’ are done . ”
“Um? Hey, Maine, what are you up to?”
“Oh, I just wanna eat some food you need a steamer to make… do you not want any, Lutz?”
“If it’s food then I want it! You mean ‘buttah’d poh-tay-toes’ are food?!”
Ah, that’s right, I must not have explained what buttered potatoes are . Although, there’s already cooking here involving sautéing tubers in butter, so they should be something he could be eating regularly .
Now that he knows that there’s food in the steamer too, Lutz cheerfully makes me a pair of bamboo skewers .
“Hey, Maine . These ‘buttah’d poh-tay-toes’, are they tasty?”
“I really like them, myself . I think it’s something you’ve probably already tasted before, though?”
Since it takes far longer for the pot to actually come to a boil than I originally expected, I wait until I’ve finished two flowers, instead of just one, then check on the status of the tubers .
“Alright, Lutz . Get that lid off!”
Standing on top of Ralph’s failed something-or-other, I brandish the skewers tightly in my right hand while gripping my cooking chopsticks in my left, waiting for Lutz to take the lid off the steamer .
“Maine don’t stick your face too close!”
As soon as Lutz removes the lid, a huge burst of steam leaps out of the steamer . As soon as the scalding vapor clears away and I can see inside, I see the two tubers resting on top of the tronbay, tinted a vibrant golden brown . With my right hand, I carefully insert the skewers into each of the tubers . They come back out easily without the potatoes breaking apart, so I think they’re done pretty well . I swap the chopsticks in my left hand with the skewers in my right, and get them ready .
“Lutz, I need a plate!”
“You think this place has any?!”
“That board over there’s fine, bring that over! Then get the butter ready . ”
“Maybe you should have done this instead of making decorations!”
“Ngh, you’re right…” I say, ashamed .
As soon as I lift both of the tubers out of the steamer and set them down on the board, I have Lutz immediately put the lid back on the steamer . I hop down from my makeshift step stool, then immediately widen the cross-shaped cuts on each of them and shove butter inside . The butter melts into the soft flesh of the tubers immediately, and the scent it gives off is irresistible .
I’ve been getting more and more excited as these get closer and closer to completion . Lutz, on the other hand, merely looked disappointed as soon as he saw what I took out of the steamer .
“…Hey, those are just kalfe roots . I had really high hopes, since it’s your cooking…”
It seems that he’s disappointed that this is something he’s eaten before . Kalfe roots are a very common crop in the nearby areas, so they’re an ingredient that shows up on everyone’s dining tables very frequently . I wonder if he’s tired of them? I can see how he’d be disappointed; this is extremely simple cooking . I didn’t even peel them first .
“Right, right! These are just kalfe roots cooked with butter, and you’ve eaten lots of these before, right? So you don’t need to eat one, do you?”
“…I’ll eat it . ”
I ignore Lutz as he grumbles to himself, quickly peeling the skin off the very top of the tuber . I wrap my hand in my apron so that it doesn’t get scalded, and pick it up . I bring the steaming potato up to my mouth, open wide, and take an enormous bite .
The surface of the tuber had cooled down quickly thanks to the frigid air, but the insides are piping hot as they melt within my mouth . Since they were steamed with the tronbay, they taste faintly of wood, like they were smoked . This flavor has intertwined with the savoriness of the butter, making a flavor that’s nothing like anything I could find at home .
“Mmm…,” I say, squirming in pleasure at the taste . Lutz, next to me, simply lets out a sigh, breath white in the cold air, then takes a bite of his own tuber . Immediately, his eyes fly wide open, and he stares in shock at the tuber . He looks back and forth between me and his food, looking like I’d tricked him somehow . Tilting his head in confusion, he takes another bite .
“…This is good! What is this?! This tastes totally different from the boiled kalfe root we eat at home!”
“It’s because they’re steamed . All the nutrients and flavor are locked in there by the steam . Today, since we steamed them with the tronbay too, it picked up the flavor of that too, like if we smoked it, so it has a really luxurious sort of taste . ”
While we gleefully dig into our kalfe roots, I tell Lutz about what what happened last night while we were working on the hairpins .
“…So, yeah, Tory and Mommy were really amazing last night . They’re really fired up about tonight, too . I couldn’t even get one done, though, so I got reminded about how useless I really am, hah . ”
“Don’t get too proud . ”
“How about you, Lutz? How’d it go?”
Lutz, who’s finished his entire kalfe root already, sadly licks the last remnants from his fingers, then shakes his head grimly .
“Nobody seemed to have any interest in anything I was doing, so even when I asked them for help, they all just pretended to ignore me . ”
“I see . Well, how about I come to your house today and cast my magic spell?”
“Yup! Once we get our money from Mister Benno, I’ll go home with you, so look forward to it!”
Now that we’re done eating, I ask Lutz to draw some water from the well, then wash my hands and rinse out my mouth . Then, I take out the calculator that I’d brought and set it in front of Lutz .
“Ummm, so, today, we have four completed hairpins to sell . ” Since we’re discussing business, I make sure to speak clearly and politely for Lutz . “Yesterday, Mister Benno paid us for one in advance, so today we will be paid for three . Each hairpin earns us eleven medium copper coins . Now then, how much money will we make today?”
As I explain the problem, Lutz listens with a serious expression, moving his fingers across the beads of the calculator .
“Correct! Well done, Lutz! Next, we’ve already established that you need to make twenty total pins . Yesterday, you made five . How many do you have left to make?”
As I thought, Lutz gets frustrated when doing calculations that involve carrying or borrowing numbers, even when he has a calculator to help him, because they can’t be done immediately . If he can’t learn how to do single-digit calculations automatically in his head, these things will take a while even if he has a calculator, so for now I take away the calculator, write a bunch of numbers on my slate, and have him start working on practicing addition .
“Let’s just work on memorizing this,” I say, speaking casually again . “You gotta get fast enough at this that you can answer immediately when asked something . ”
Lutz grumbles, but gets to work studying . Meanwhile, I sit down next to him and work on finishing up my hairpin . By the time it’s done, it’s nearly noon, and the tronbay has finished steaming .
“Lutz, once I get each of these in the water, take them out please . ”
One by one, I use my chopsticks to place the steamed sticks of tronbay into the tub full of water from the well . They hiss with steam as I push them down into the water, then Lutz takes them out and puts them onto a nearby board . Since this isn’t flowing river water, the water in the tub quickly warms up .
“The water’s getting pretty warm,” says Lutz . “One sec . ”
While I wait for Lutz to draw fresh water from the well to refill the tub, I sit down and start working on stripping bark from each stick . Once the tub is full, I go back to soaking new sticks . This repeats for some time . After all of the wood has been removed from the steamer, I steadily keep working on stripping bark while the wood is still warm, and Lutz cleans up the pot and steamer . Finally, we hang the strips of bark from nails in the warehouse to dry, and our work for the day is complete .
“Woohoo, all done!”
“Alright, cleanup’s all done too!”
Since I’d been stripping hot bark for so long, even after hanging everything out to dry my fingers are still prickling with heat . The cool air feels really nice on them right now . I take in a deep breath, filling my lungs with the cool, crisp air .
I’m not despairing over anything . I’m not anxious about anything . All I feel right now is the relief and sense of freedom you feel after finishing a difficult task .
Even still, the devouring fever rages within me . Reflexively, I turn all of my strength inwards, focusing on pinning it down again .
Since I’ve suddenly gone rigid in front of him, Lutz shakes me frantically . I want to tell him that I’m trying to concentrate and that I want him to stop, but I’m struggling so hard against the pain that I can’t form any words . I shakily reach out my right hand and catch one of his . He grabs onto it tightly with both hands .
“What the…? You’re burning up?! Maine, are you alright? Can you hear me?!”
I focus on my tightly-squeezed hand, struggling to shut down the fever as I’ve done so many times before . Even though I’ve been imagining building a strong wall around my inner core to keep it shut in, this time a fragment of it managed to penetrate straight through .
Get back in there!
I manage to force the last embers of it back down into the depths of my heart, but I think this time is the longest it’s ever taken me .
Immediately after my fever goes away, I’m suddenly weighed down by fatigue so heavy that I don’t even want to move my mouth to speak . I don’t really have the strength to stand anymore, so I sit down on the spot . Lutz, still holding tightly to my hand, is pulled along, crouching beside me .
“Huh? Your fever… went down? What the hell is this? Hey! Maine! Are you okay?!”
“…That was… the devouring . You know, the thing Frieda was talking about?”
I let out an enormous sigh as I answer, and Lutz frowns worriedly .
“Wait, hang on . You’re saying that there’s no sign at all that you’re suddenly about to get really sick?”
“It comes really quickly . Until now, it’s only happened when I’m feeling really strong emotions, but lately even the tiniest flicker of emotion seems to let it out… man, that startled me . ”
I really was startled, but I picked such an ordinary word to finish that off with to try to lessen the raw shock of it all . Lutz, though, still looks like he’s almost about to cry, still clutching my hand tightly . Trying to give him at least a little peace of mind, I smile broadly up at him .
“Is there… anything you can do?”
“…Frieda told us already, didn’t she? It takes a huge amount of money . Mister Benno said the same thing . ”
The blood instantly drains from his face, leaving him white as a sheet .
“And, since that’s that, shall we go to Mister Benno’s shop now so that we can earn a little money?”
I show him a happy smile, hiding the honest fact that putting in any large amount of physical effort would be intensely difficult . Lutz clenches his teeth tightly, then lets go of my hand and spins around so that his back is facing me .
“I’ll carry you to the shop . …It’s all I can do, after all . ”
“It’s all you can do? Don’t you already do a lot for me, though?”
“Argh, just get on!”
I hear a quaver in his voice as he’s urging me on . I pretend not to hear it, though, and lean against his back, draping my arms over his shoulders .
Man, I’m beat, I think to myself .
Back when I was Urano, living life without ever looking up from my books, I’d never had a friend who’d cry for me like this . I don’t know if saying anything now is the right thing to do here . I’ve read about it in books, but I’m still not sure at all .
Lutz, you’re too kind . No matter how useless I am, you stay with me . I’m not even the real Maine, and you know that, but you’ve forgiven me .
“If I ever pass out from the devouring, Lutz, it’s not your fault at all . It really, really does come without any warning . …And there’s no way I’m gonna lose anytime soon . I haven’t made a single book yet . ”
I can hear Lutz sniffle, but he doesn’t reply .