Entry Writchal #2
THE GIRL OF THE VESSEL
A SUBMISSION FOR WRITCHAL #2 – ELYSIAN BLISS
That day, the man arrived just in time to the examination hall, wearing the most casual of clothing and uncombed hair. He had with him nothing than his student ID and a single pen with unreliable ink. Dark circles clouded his eyes, ink stains marked his hands, and the smell of coffee was his breath. He sat on a seat at the back knowing well what will unfold next.
A set of five questions stood between him and exiting the hall, and the faster he could bullshit through them, the faster he’d finally be able to sit in front of his desk for another fifteen waking hours. And bullshit his way he did. The result will not matter, for no matter how much he reads up on the material, he’d still end up in the exact same position.
Among the first to leave the exam hall, a curious set of eyes worriedly looked at him as he left. Half an hour later, he’d be seen wasting his time on his desk. Only later that midnight would he fall asleep.
The circumstances of that night will never be fully understood, nor is it meant to be, for something remarkable is happening.
“Good morning, sir,”
were the first three words his ears captured that morning.
In the room, on the bed beside an intimidating pile of dirty clothes and empty plastic bottles, 21-year-old Tsutae Kurone saw a black-and-white figure standing silently just outside the door frame, with all their patience directed to waiting him wake clear his vision.
It’s hard to see behind all the dust. Not to mention the comoftable bolster and the rough greasy strands of his hair bridging from his eyebrows to his nose.
When Tsutae finally regained his senses, he whiffed his hair off to better see. A yawn echoed throughout the bedroom. The fuzzy red blanket rested on top of his pale, skinny, noodlish legs. Sunlight barraged his eyes from behind the grayish figure.
The face of said figure seemed rather familiar if blurred. As his view cleared, however, he noticed their pale white face, their freckles under the eyes, their short height, and their brownish hair going down straight to their shoulders. And most importantly, why would they be wearing a…maid outfit?!
Tsutae no longer needed a tickle, a loud alarm, nor a spurt of cold water to wake him up. The sight of someone opening the door to his room is wild enough, more so a supposed maid!
“W-who are you, and why are you in my room?!”
“I’m really sorry for the intrusion.”
“I-it’s going to take a while.”
The disgruntled, confused Tsutae hid himself behind the crumpled blanket, like hiding himself wouldn’t hide the fact that he hadn’t showered in three days.
“Um…eh!” the girl interjected, flustered, avoiding ever looking at his face. “I’m really sorry, I don’t really know how I got here. But don’t kick me out, please!”
The man did not respond.
“I-I can get you a glass of water. You seem…dehydrated.”
So the pale girl went to the kitchen and gathered water in a glass from the tap. When she returned, the man looked a lot more docile, his face focused on a glowing screen. The girl hesitated to approach the strange man.
“Here, sir. Have a drink.”
Tsutae didn’t thank her, and simply sipped it all down his throat. But he couldn’t shake off the problematic taste.
“What the?! Is this tap water!”
“S-sorry, is it not…ideal?”
“Yuck. Why are you so…strange?”
The girl tilted her head. “I’m not sure what you mean by that, sir.”
“Forget it. Just, please get out of here. I don’t want to see you again.”
“But sir! I need some—”
“B-but…” the girl started to tear up.
“And stop calling me ‘sir’ please.”
The girl turned around, walked away, limped back with the lights still turned off, and closed the door right as the rays of sunlight penetrated the slight gaps in the curtain. Tsutae tightened the curtains.
It took four hours before the door was opened again. It usually takes the man several more, but the presence of that maid-girl the earlier morning forced him to stay alert. And alert he was. When the sound of a plate breaking from the kitchen echoed across his apartment, Tsutae took ten minutes to gather enough of himself to approach.
Upon arrival, he was greeted by the sight of a messy stain across the white apron of the girl’s outfit, all the while her blue eyes were still tearing up. She leaned against the dining table, having broken a plate and with several used utensils on the dining table. Tsutae himself seemed surprised that they were still functional.
“What are you doing?”
“I’m sorry…I don’t know. I’m just…trying to cook.”
“At my apartment?”
“P-please sir—I mean, I have nowhere else to go.” The girl sat on her knees.
“Nowhere else to go?” Tsutae sighed.
Forcedly, he had to clean up the mess himself, including the broken pieces on the floor. All the while, he interrogated the girl, looking into her eyes at every question, which she tried to avoid reciprocating.
“Where did you even come from?”
“It’s—I,” she stuttered. “I don’t think I have the time to explain it now.”
“Well aren’t you good at giving vague answers?”
The girl stood up. “It’s not like I’m trying to! Listen, okay, I should probably introduce myself.”
Tsutae turned around after placing a knife in the sink. This time, the girl had enough courage to look at him directly.
“Hirano…” Tsutae glared as he picked up the cutting board. “And? Why should I let you stay here? You’re already ruining so much of my Monday.”
Hirano stood up and picked up a napkin. “I…really can’t tell. And I don’t know if you would believe me if I said it.”
“Say it or I’ll really kick you out.”
“Sorry!” Hirano pleaded. “I’ll…tell you everything,” she said as she wiped the stain off her dress. “But I think it’ll be better if we sat down.
Tsutae never enjoyed sitting down on the couch in front of the TV. He much preferred eating in his dark room alone in front of his hundred-thousand yen PC setup, watching what can equally be considered static, mere filler to keep himself at enough attention to eat. But here he was, sitting somewhere uncomfortable and unusual for him. To add to that, the last time a woman was in this room had been almost two semesters ago. So this is what it’s like to have a girl over…
Or is this even real? Am I really believing a girl would come by with a maid outfit and that’s not bothering me?
Nevertheless, Tsutae is surprised and angered that Hirano would not let him kick her out. In fact, he meant to kick her out of his apartment as a gift, more than an actual eviction. Would a high-class girl like her really have the time and tolerance for a filthy idiot trash like me?
It’s more of an insult to him than anything else.
When the two had calmed down, Tsutae tried his best to listen to her.
“The name ‘Sute Hirano’. It is not my real name. But I don’t remember my given name, either. I didn’t live life here before…and the name simply emerged in my head. I…” the girl rolled her eyes. “Sorry, I think I forgot something.”
“Get to the point, I don’t want to get philosophical.” Tsutae turned his phone on and off while spinning it around on his thigh, still clearly uninterested.
“I belonged to a French ferry.”
Only then, did Tsutae pay attention.
“We went on voyages. It was a commercial ship, but for some reason I can’t remember the name very well. And I was a maid on the ship’s restaurant. I had been working there for a few years. There were a lot of customers, especially nearing Christmas. I’d become very busy. But that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it.
And it was Christmas. Like I mentioned, there were so many people on board. We were headed off from the United States to The Viceroyalty of Peru. It’s not a common route by any means. Two of my coworkers who have worked there much longer thought so, at least.
Her hands began to shake.
Hirano took a deep breath to calm herself down. Where she tried to get back in control, Tsutae still waited for her to continue.
And a sigh. “Sorry, I think I might need something to drink.”
Before she could stand up, Tsutae stopped her and reluctantly rose from his seat and made two cups of tea. Meanwhile, like a building holding itself together through an earthquake, Hirano held her hands together to halt the chills from her own body.
“Your story is still too hard for me to believe.”
“I know, that’s…probably true.” There was a glittery inkling on her face, as if hesitating to reveal something. As the tea cooled, she finally got a hold of the first sip, and the words poured out.
“Somehow, I fell out of the ship.” Tsutae, with the glass in his hand, put the glass back on the wooden table.
Hirano took another sip. “And I woke up, here. I dreamt a lot. Somehow I know how to speak the language of your people…and was given my new name.”
“All the way here, in my apartment?”
“Yes, really! I don’t know, how it all happened.”
A short wave of silence.
Her face certainly looks like that of a white foreigner…And it doesn’t look like she has any possessions on her, either. Could it be that this is all a ploy?
“I don’t trust you, at least I can’t yet.”
Tsutae stood up and circumnavigated her, checking if she had anything on her that could be dangerous.
“Do you have anything on you?” he asked.
She checked her pockets. Tsutae thought about roleplaying an airport safety agent and checking them himself before realizing it’d be creepy.
“I have one of these…” She revealed a golden heart necklace. It had a detailed motif at the front that became exaggerated when radiated by light. She pressed the button at the back.
“No way!” She gasped.
“It’s…empty. That’s strange.”
“What’s supposed to be in there?”
“No, I…” she recalled her memories. “I had someone I loved. I can’t remember much about him, but I’ve always kept this in my pocket for his sake. There should’ve been two dry flowers inside…”
“Sorry for that.”
Not commenting much, Tsutae went outside, checking whether someone had been setting anything up. With full percaution, he sneaked out to only see wind blowing out the railing of his second-floor apartment, alongside two pots next to his door, the dirt already dried out.
He closed the door again.
“U-um…something is ringing,” she said.
He heard his phone ringing from the sofa and rushed to pick it up.
It’s mom. Upon realizing that, he gestured at the maid girl to stay in place, and went back into his room.
A greeting she always says when she calls him.
“How are you today?”
He didn’t know how to respond at first. After all, a complete stranger is sitting so calmly in front of her. She’d probably freak out if I told her.
“I just woke up.”
“This late?! As expected from you on a Monday…” she stated sarcastically.
Tsutae’s first smile of the day.
“What’s new, hmm. It’s Michiko’s first day of midterm exams today. Onii-chan should support her!”
“Oh, right. I totally forgot. Tell her to do her best and…keep on studying.”
“Of course…you too, Tsu-tan! Have you eaten?”
“A-ah, no, I’m just about to.”
“Go at it! Can’t go through a day with an empty stomach.”
“Right, thanks mom. I’ll go…do that.”
“See you later, then.”
“Bye…” he hung up.
Returning to the sofa, he found her at the exact same position. Perhaps afraid of taking any action, she resembled a painting meant to capture her innocence. It’s unimaginable for someone like her to be part of something bad.
She glanced at him.
“How do I say this…I’ll let you stay, for now. I don’t know who you are or understand how you got here, but you can stay, only under close surveillance by me.”
“Right.” He sighed, glancing at the stain on her outfit. “Now…I can get you a change of clothes.”
Just an hour ago, the two had come to a compromise: that Tsutae somehow found the empathy within himself to care about a random girl who appeared in his apartment. Despite not yet believing her story, he at least had enough money to feed two mouths for…at least a month. His dad might get angry if he ever found out, though.
Afterwards, Tsutae got her a change of clothes. They belonged to his ex-girlfriend who didn’t bother coming back to his apartment just for a few articles of clothing. They’d have to buy more later. It was hard to explain why she didn’t have to wear her maid outfit anymore.
Lastly, Tsutae didn’t trust her enough to leave her alone inside. So, treating her like she’s his annoying little sister, he brought her with him. He didn’t have much of a plan, going outside. If she hadn’t showed up, he would have wasted his money lifelessly playing arcade games without a care in the world. But now, seeing as he might be judged for doing that, that might not seem like the ideal choice.
Except…it seems like she’s the one making herself easily judged.
She stood in awe in front of several high-rises and strange metal vehicles sleekly racing past just underneath them. Holding on to the railing, she stared in awe while Tsutae walked off to the stairs as if there were nothing.
“Why are you staring at everything?”
“What year is it?” she glanced at him.
“It is 2021.”
“No way!” she shouted. “Two thousand and twenty-one? How? I-it’s…” she softened her voice. “I…could have sworn it was…”
Forced to comfort her, Tsutae went back up the stairs and patted her shoulder. “Calm down. Don’t scream.”
As if a chain of flashbacks went in and out through her mind, she released herself from his hands, backing towards the door.
“Kurone-san, I’m scared.”
Back at the apartment, a terrified Hirano sat with a cup of ramen noodles in her hands. A huge grin showed on her face at the first taste of monosodium glutamate. Meanwhile, a stoic Tsutae read a book from the beginning, reciting it as she listened, just to calm her down.
“It was things he said quite at random that, bit-by-bit, explained everything. For instance, when he first caught sight of my airplane,” he cleared his throat. “…(which I won’t draw, that would be much too complicated for me). He said ‘What’s that thing over there?’
‘It’s not a thing. It flies! It’s an airplane. My airplane.’
And I was proud to tell him I could fly.”
“I think that’s enough, Kurone-san. Thank you.” She said, right after she finished her cup. Tsutae couldn’t tell whether it was the book or the MSG that calmed her down.
“So,” he rose up from his seat and took the empty cup, “You were in that vessel for a lot longer than you thought.”
“I guess so. I’m lucky to be alive, then.”
No reply. Tsutae threw away the ramen cup.
“But what should I do now?”
A sigh. “You don’t have any legal stance to exist here, now. It’s not like I can send you to a French embassy and say here’s someone who died two hundred years ago, that’d be absurd. Where exactly was…your vessel?”
“Or were you magically transported into my apartment?”
No answer. Tsutae looked at the wall clock, pointing a few minutes just before one in the afternoon.
He sighed. “You know what? Do whatever you like. I’m having an online class soon.”
“Like you’d understand.”
And he slammed the door.
It was a two-hour-long Zoom meeting that prompted attention from all students in the course, as the lecturing professor would say the names of his students at random once every minute. Tsutae had no time to waste playing video games during class as he usually does.
Truth be told, he would rather do anything else but to attend class this time. All he could think about throughout class was to pass out mid-class or fall asleep without anyone noticing. If he were to leave and log on into a round of the first-person shooter game Valiant, he’d feel immense guilt over ignoring his tasks.
It’s his third semester of college, after all. Isn’t it common for students at this time to experience a heavy dip in their motivation? He sure hoped so. There’s a certain point at the third semester where college becomes an unwanted chore, devoid of any opportunity to connect with anyone, find new hobbies, or ‘build oneself into a better character’, as past mentors would say.
Those thoughts, flew from one edge of the screen to the other throughout the meeting. All the while he’s waiting patiently for the time his group would present.
The topic of the presentation was about “The Applications of the Laws of Thermodynamics and Gibbs Free Energy in Biological Systems”. Each group was tasked with doing independent practicum on plants and thermodynamics that Tsutae himself did not understand enough to even care…nor contribute. Imagine how upset they’ll be at him.
Just as he was about to fall asleep, the professor called for his group. So, it started, he read his part and his part only, turned off his camera, left the meeting, and saw that his nap would have to be delayed thanks to some homework he couldn’t care less about. Though, thanks to his lack of understanding, he couldn’t answer a single question.
An hour of stressing over a piece of paper ended only with him slamming his empty notebook onto the wall and falling asleep just a few minutes later.
The middusk scenery revealed a ray of orange sun hidden behind clouds just outside the window. Again, the light shone on the young man’s face. As his eyes widened to see the girl once again, right in front of him, all he could show was a face disappointed in himself.
“Is there anything wrong?”
He avoided looking at her eyes.
“Didn’t I tell you not to come here?”
In reality, Tsutae wanted to push her out physically, never letting her back in, without a care whether he hurt her or not in the process. But he’s out of energy to even be mad. What came out of it was an exasperated, yet exhausted voice of an empty shell of a man.
Hirano sighed. “You seem really tired. Should I get you some water again?”
“What, from the tap?”
“N-no, I know how to use the water dispenser now, I swear!”
She’d probably destroy it if she tried to use it, Tsutae thought.
The thought of it alone prompted Tsutae to rise up immediately. “I’ll get it myself,” he said, passing through Hirano’s silhouette. But upon leaving his room, an unfamiliar, night-like smell permeated around his apartment.
“Wait!” Hirano went after him out the room. The uplifting scent, however, was too strong for Tsutae to resist. Alas, his arrival to the kitchen was greeted by a breathtaking plate of chicken casserole, warmly served with fragrant herbs and apple cider.
Taking a closer look, he found the scent too great not to tantalize him.
Hirano came to the door frame. “W-well, I guess you see it now. Sorry I made it out of nowhere.”
Taking a sniff once again at the magnificence, all Tsutae could do was stand upright and peek behind him. The oh, so innocent maid girl that she is, yet hiding such a charm.
“How…how did you make this?”
“I just know how to.”
Using the spoon on the dish next to the bowl of chicken casserole, Tsutae scooped a few drops of the creamy sauce. The savory broth first touched the tip of his tongue, spreading around it like the flow of a river. The following sweetness of apple cider left a steamy residue permeating around his mouth. Finally, the taste of onion in harmony with the soup wrapped every taste before, all before he could close his mouth.
“You r-really think so?”
“Really. I’ll have to give that to you.” Tsutae, plainfully hiding his amazement, glared at Hirano as she tried not to look into his eyes.
“T-thank you.” Hirano put her hands together and bowed. “I hope it’s okay I used the ingredients from the cold…box.”
“The cold box?”
An awkward stare from both of them. Tsutae sighed. “It’s called a refrigerator.”
A slight chuckle. Tsutae turned around. “You’d be amazed at the things we make at this day and age. Wait…how did you figure out how to even use these?”
“Ehe…I just figured them out, somehow.”
That’s deserving of skepticism. Ignoring the tantalizing scent next to him, Tsutae scoured through the kitchen, trying to find holes in her methodology.
Alas, he arrived at the induction stove. It was still turned on. God knows how long it had stayed as such.
“Well, you forgot to turn one thing off.”
“Oh, the hot plate?”
“The what? It’s just a stove.”
“But there’s no fire!”
“We don’t…use fire, anymore.”
“Then how does it work?”
A glimpse of the preceding lecture on thermodynamics struck his mind. What sort of process is used to convert electricity into heat here? Does she even know what electricity is?
“I…don’t actually know how it works, but people made it and it’s safe enough to use.”
“What about that refrigiderator? How does that work?”
“Same thing as before.”
She pouted. “It seems people these days don’t really know how things work and they use it anyway…”
“Well, that is very true. Isn’t it a lot like what you were used to?” He turned to look at her. “You didn’t know how ships sailed. You weren’t a captain, nor were you ever involved in determining schedules.”
“But shouldn’t you at least understand the things you use every day?”
“Don’t know,” Tsutae looked away. “Everyday things are more…how do I say, Kafkaesque these days.”
Right, Kafka wasn’t born yet. “Let’s say, they’re a lot more complicated and people don’t really know how they work.”
Hirano didn’t seem satisfied, but accepted the answer. “W-well, sorry if I did anything wrong.” She bowed. “I’ll learn to do better in the future. Shall I serve you, sir-I mean…Kurone-san?”
Tsutae was taken aback by the sudden surge of politeness from her. Looking back, it’s no surprise considering she’s a maid from her past life. But looking at the service he’s getting, he couldn’t help but to feel bad.
And he smiled. “I see you’re treating me like your customer.”
“A-ah, sorry, should I not?”
“I really shouldn’t be treated as one. But if you ask for it…”
“No, not at all! I—”
“A plate of chicken casserole, please.”
Hirano fidgeted. Perhaps she should allow him as her customer?
“C-coming right up, sir!”
She seemed to have oriented herself with Tsutae’s messy, barely-used kitchen well within just a few hours, as she brought to the table two whole plates of the dish with a side of sliced, baked potatoes in as much time as Tsutae started to daydream.
When the dish arrived, Tsutae raised his hand and said, “Excuse me, could I have a glass of water with it?” with a straight, dissatisfied face, his voice reminiscent of his father talking about his grades.
“Oh, absolutely, sir!”
Off she went and made filled two glasses with water from the dispenser. This time, it didn’t result in a catastrophe.
She was getting prepared to sit down and eat with him, but at the same time reluctant to do so, thinking her average customer, a wealthy upper-class French citizen, would be quite unhappy about having dinner together with a maid. The more adventurous of the bunch would try to get her attention, flirting to no limit.
But the man in front of her now isn’t an upper-class French citizen; he is a filthy man from a foreign country she can’t name, who would stop at anything when he feels he couldn’t achieve it, and would care as little as possible to the people around him. That type of person would not even enjoy being served by a maid, let alone spend dinner together, nor would even entertain the idea of being infatuated with her, let alone flirt.
Thinking this, she prepared to sit down.
This time, the maid did not give him such kingly treatment, and did not say a word before getting what looked the closest to napkins around the kitchen, which were really just three tissues, neatly laid down on the table.
After all was said and done, she finally sat down at her seat, while Tsutae already finished a third of his meal. She took her first bite.
“So, you really did go through all that trouble, just to serve me dinner,” Tsutae suggested, mouth still packed with potatoes to the bare minimum point of inteligibility.
She waited to swallow before answering him. “I…thought you would like that.”
“As I said, don’t treat me as one. You’re the one staying at my place.”
Tsutae finally swallowed the blob of potato.
“Only lowly otakus desperate to find love are ever truly fond of being treated that way.”
Right, what is an otaku?
“I mean…you get what I mean.”
She absolutely did not, but accepted the answer nonetheless.
Unlike the gluttonous Tsutae, Hirano preferred to finish her own dinner in small bits, enjoying every tiny piece of what she had cooked. After Tsutae finished his portion, however, it was silent.
“So, Kurone-san, forgive me for asking. What do you do for a living?”
“Ah.” Tsutae was just about to rise up from his seat to put his dishes away to the sink. The question reminded him of his thermodynamics homework, which would undoubtedly be an unpleasant experience. Maybe I should stay here a bit longer…
“I’m a college student. Tohoku University.”
“You’re a college student?!” she shouted with her tone raised. “No way! I thought…”
“N-nothing. Sorry for my unkind words.”
“What is with the formality now?”
A short moment of silence.
“Ah. No, no, you’ve got it wrong. I’m not at all rich, or whatever.”
He smirked. “Right. I’m pretty sure colleges are a lot more accessible now than at your time.” He took a sip from the glass of water. “You’ll be most wrong if you think I come from somewhere wealthy. I barely have enough to get by.”
“How much does college even cost?”
Tsutae took time to think, finally standing up and placing his dish on the sink. “I don’t know how to compare it, but it’s easy enough for middle-income families.”
“Was it so expensive for you?”
“Ah, well, my family was quite rich, so it wasn’t a problem for me. My uncle attended, that’s for one!”
Tsutae pondered about living in the middle of the nineteenth century as a student of a top European university. He imagined the typical student of a prestigious university at the time would be more interested in the humanities rather than science. He’d be born into a wealthy family with no regard for the lower class, attend class every day wearing monotonous black and white suits, take only necessary notes, and engage in whatever clubs or activities were around. Its romanticized feel made everything now seem bleak and empty. That, he felt rush through his body as he finished washing his plate.
“College is hard.”
“No, what am I saying? It’s not hard, it’s just that I’m unable to find any drive to do well.”
Hirano quietly listened.
“I think a lot of my friends are leaving me because I’m never actively doing anything. There’s an assignment I’m avoiding to do right now, and they’ll probably end up being submitted past the deadline at this point. Not to mention yesterday’s exam. Do you know what I did throughout the exam?”
“Yeah…I filled everything out with random calculations, scribbles, and explanations I don’t truly understand. And then I slept for a few minutes before I submitted everything early. I’m pretty sure the exam supervisor knew I had given up. Do you understand how that feels?”
It was time that Hirano finished her meal. After fancily wiping her mouth with a tissue, she cleared her throat.
“I can’t say I do, but I’m sure what you’re feeling is normal.”
“Then, why can’t I see others having the same problems?”
“If they had them, they wouldn’t be so brave as to show it to others.”
“Hm…you may be right, but still, that doesn’t tell me anything about how to stop wasting my time.”
“I know…I don’t think I can help much as I’m not in your place.”
“Do you want to be in my place?”
“Another exam is coming up pretty soon, too…”
“So the heat function given that the volume is constant would be…the mass times temperature and—”
“This is…I don’t understand a thing.”
“And you think I do?”
“The way you’re narrating it makes it sound like you do.”
“I do that just to remember things, but they don’t actually help.”
Tsutae continued to babble incoherent scientific nonsense, words that, to the ears of Hirano are completely unintelligible. After about ten minutes of listening to him, he got tired and unable to find any answer to the question.
“Arghhhhh…” he wailed.
“Couldn’t find it?”
“Worthless piece of shit.” He slammed the book on the table.
Hirano couldn’t find the words to stop him as he walked off to his room, likely on the way to slumber again. Today’s study session, just like every single study session he had done throughout the third semester, has been fruitless.
So she sat, quiet and alone on the dinner table. She sighed.
“Again, man…I couldn’t help him at all…” she mumbled to herself. There existed a heavy weight pushing down on her back, preventing her from standing up. Immobile, she read the materials being studied by Tsutae. A 1153-page long textbook, alongside a small notebook and a pen that has lost almost all of its ink. Not very much used to colored images and text as well as writing utensils being so robust, she didn’t do much other than scour through the pages, none of which she understood.
It was another ten minutes before she mustered the courage to get up and let the day go. Maybe Tsutae should never have been visited by her. She could’ve gone to the neighboring apartment with people she could truly help.
So the clock struck eight. Outside, the sky did not close its eyes. Everything still glowed brightly, shining the horizon. Seas of people crossed through intersections. Others waited for the light to green, letting automobiles swift past.
Seeing all this, Hirano bit her lips and scratched her temples, her eyes never closing. If she went out to the other apartment, they may or may not be as tolerant of her…even compared to Tsutae. But at the same time, it’s unimaginable that she’d ever make him happy.
So she opened the door. The air smelled nothing like how she remembered. The night sky was shining. Little lights outnumbered homes. Buildings rose higher than clouds. Flying machines gazed upon every inch of the population, robotically moving across vast stretches of asphalt lanes, wearing colorful yet monotonous clothing, carrying bags full of the latest products and papers merely transported from factory to factory, office to office, home to home. It was when an airplane went past with its whirring din that Hirano couldn’t take the view much longer and finally looked at what was next to her feet.
Two oblong pots, resting next to the door.
Out of everything she could see around her, only these had any semblance of familiarity. She let out a deep breath and laxed her body. Still, even now, some people still practice something so sweet and therapeutic as taking care of a plant. That much, is comforting.
And they could not be anyone else’s but Tsutae’s. But the plants growing in them were withering away, the dirt below so dry. So the former maid rushed back in, finding the nearest bathroom to snatch some water. Using a bowl from the kitchen, she poured the water equally on the poor plants.
At least now, there’s something to appreciate her efforts. With even that, she stayed in for the night. Before going to sleep, she checked out her maid dress at the laundry room. There are two things in her pocket that she forgot to take out.
First, her heart necklace.
And the second was the very item that brought her here.
“Kurone-san, wake up…”
The familiar voice of the pale-skinned, soft-handed girl woke Tsutae from an uneventful dream back to an uneventful life. At first, he waved around his hands, his inner self desperately wanting to return to a dream world.
But the force of her voice was stronger, and so woke up an exhausted, overslept Tsutae.
“Sorry to disturb you so early…but the noise, it won’t stop.”
Oh, the alarm.
He turned off the phone alarm and checked what time it was. He always had an alarm every three minutes for Tuesday for one hour, that way he’d be sure to wake up. Much to his disappointment of himself, it was the last alarm of the hour-long whirr.
Before she could process what he just said, the man had rushed for the bathroom with an identical shirt and pants identical to his shorts. Following a three-minute shower, movements of his body scoured the apartment for combs, bags, papers, and laptops.
“Kurone…san?” she tried to call several times to no avail. She had reheated the leftover chicken casserole from yesterday as well as rice she found in the cooker. She didn’t know how to use a rice cooker, so she had heated it manually. Upon Tsutae having prepared everything he needed for the day, he arrived to the kitchen in shock, again, perhaps still not used to having someone cook for him every day. Seeing this, the frustrated man calmed down and took a lunch box from a cabinet.
“…Looks alright,” he said, in reference to the chicken.
That alone made her at least hint at a smile.
Tsutae filled his lunch box with the available rice and chicken casserole.
“I have classes in some twenty minutes. I don’t think I’ll get there in time.”
“Yeah, the campus is implementing a hybrid online—no, you wouldn’t understand. Point is, I’ll probably be out for a while today.”
“I wish you the best today.”
He closed and tightened the lunch box. “Would it be okay if you stayed here…or do you want to go out?”
The image of the sea of people, large buildings, and blinding lights returned to her mind. “I think I’d rather stay in…”
Tsutae sipped half a glass of water and walked towards the door. “Well. I’ll be going. Use whatever you like in my fridge.”
“Um! Kurone-san!” she asked. Her face showed dejection and deviance to him.
“Eh? Come on, I don’t have much time.”
She hesitated. “W-would you mind if you got me a camisole and…panties, on your way back?”
An unexpected question. Right, she is a girl after all.
Her asking it made him look the other way, but understand the necessity nonetheless.
“Right. I’ll get them,” he said, and closed the door as she thanked him. For a moment, he thought about going back to ask what her bra size is, but he figured it’d be too embarrassing.
Stepping out the door, he sat down and put on his pair of shoes, only slightly noticing the dirt in the pots had become wet again. The slam of the door came with silence accompanying a lone maid.
Tsutae planned from the very beginning to use the first hour in his General Environmental Science class to doze off. He had arrived about ten minutes late. The professor was among the lenient of the bunch, and did not care how late her students are or what they decide to do in class as long as they don’t disturb others.
And so it ended. As per usual, Tsutae did not bond well with most of his peers. The looks he’d get upon talking to them reveal bright words and smiles to his face, but it’s easy to tell that behind all the innocence, they don’t appreciate those who waste their potential upon being accepted to a good institution such as Tohoku University. From what they can observe, Tsutae only lives his days as a freeloader with no sense of responsibility nor enthusiasm over his major, pointing sharp blades of scorn upon his mere presence.
Fortunately, there was one person around who still tolerated his presence. The moment Tsutae left class, his loud, extraverted voice greeted him from the door.
“Ah, Susumu-san…why so sudden?”
“Just wanted to greet you, that’s all!”
Susumu Sakuma has the appearance of a typical young, ambitious, colorful high school student, blinded from the dark truth of college life. A stranger would expect him to be the captain of a high school sports team, active in extracurricular activities, and be loved by girls of his class as well as teachers. But in reality, he’s a college student with no athletic record yet still being an ambitious overachiever throughout his career.
He had a buzz cut and a squarish yet attractive face, both being characteristic of him and can be used to identify him from a long distance. His face was fresh and clear, to the point that many interrogate him for his skincare routine, even though he doesn’t use any. He was shorter compared to peers, as tall as the average female student, yet his height is often overshadowed by his outgoingness.
“So, what’s for lunch, heh?” He placed his hand around Tsutae’s shoulder.
“I’ll just get whatever I feel is good enough…”
“Oh, I know! We can get some jelly tea together, how do you feel about that?”
“I’ve never had it, actually.”
“Ah, absolutely unbelievable, Tsutae! Inconceivable, unthinkable, perhaps! Shall we? Don’t worry, it’ll be my treat!”
“Well…now that you say it, it’s not that bad…”
“Let’s get a-going!”
Just ten minutes later, the pair would be seen sitting together on the table outside the campus Hisokayuki, a popular, quickly-spreading ice cream and tea parlor that recently opened a branch inside the university. Considering its popularity among college students, it’s always crowded inside, forcing the two to take refuge just outside.
Tsutae found jelly tea to be too sugary for his taste, but Susumu definitely didn’t think so. As they were enjoying the drink, a friend of Susumu’s pat his back and asked if he could tutor her on Biochemistry.
Right, the exam is next Monday.
“Ah, Akiko. What’s up?”
“What do you mean ‘what’s up?’. I’m obviously confabulated! Let me borrow your head for once!”
“Woah, woah, you can’t just do that! I’ve got a lot of secret stuff in here,” he pointed at himself.
“Then teach me biochem!”
“I’m telling you it’s tonight…just be patient.”
“Nah…you’re making me wait for too long!”
Susumu sipped from his cup. “How about you get some Hisokayuki while you’re here. It’ll help you stay calm.
I love you, You love me, I love Hisokayuki,”
When she left the scene, Tsutae was left with a gloomy expression, tapping the table with his fingers as he overloaded himself with the sugar.
“Sorry about that, Sanae likes to pester me a lot recently.”
No reply. The tapping continued.
“Is it making you anxious again?” Susumu asked.
“What, the exam? Of course!”
“I’m telling you, man, say you want me to help with anything, I’d be very glad to offer a hand.”
No reply. Tsutae recalled the previous night where he studied alongside Hirano, how he sat so hopelessly with her.
Why would she put up with me, anyway?
“Ah, yes. Where were you?”
“Eh, forget it, I’m probably putting on more pressure. Point is, you’re never alone, Tsutae. There’ll always be…” his voice faded.
Didn’t she say she was from some old French ship? Is there even any proof of that, or did I accept it as fact without even checking?
“…so yeah, seeing how you were last exam, I just feel like, maybe you haven’t had enough support recently.”
“I-I appreciate that.” Tsutae pretended to have listened.
A short silence arose.
“Sorry for changing the topic, but do you believe in time travel?”
“Mhm…What kind of time travel are you talking about?”
“I’m thinking one where someone from the past can suddenly appear right now.”
“Assuming they travel to a parallel universe, that could happen!”
“Yes, I’m thinking, if you can see yourself in thirty years in the same universe, that’s probably going to cause a lot of trouble. Or there’s also the grandfather paradox, where if you go back in time to kill your grandfather in the same universe, that means your grandfather would never have met your grandmother, and so you wouldn’t ever be born…to kill him in the first place. That’s not good! Those kinds of issues probably won’t happen if you traveled to another universe instead!”
“I see all that sugar is making you energetic with this answer.”
“Sugar? What sugar? This ain’t sweet enough for me!” He enthusiastically sipped.
“Well have fun being diabetic.”
“No way! I’m totally immune to it! Look at this, all seven of my cousins, all three generations above me, have never been hit with that! There’s no way I’m breaking the chain!” He slurps the layer of condensed milk at the bottom of the cup.
He didn’t stir it? Yuck.
“So,” Susumu asked, “Why did you ask about time travel?”
“Oh, right. Say, if someone arrived here today from the past, what would be the consequences?”
“That’d be worrying. But really, it depends on where they are and what’s waiting for them on the other side.”
Worrying? She doesn’t seem at all worried about herself.
“I wonder what’s the ideal way to deal with them if that happens. Like, imagine if they come from fifty years ago, surely their citizenship would’ve expired, and people would question what happened to them.”
“You can make the case famous enough! Then governments around the world are going to send their best scientists to research time travel!”
“Seems like unnecessary drama for me.”
Just as it happened, the quarter-hour bell rang. For Susumu, it meant him having to be in class within the next fifteen minutes. Tsutae’s class, meanwhile, was still an hour and a half away.
“Ah, that’s my call. We can continue this later.” Susumu finished the last of his jelly tea. “See you!”
Somehow, his curiosity over Hirano lead Tsutae to the library. Having never been there before, the place looked nothing like anywhere he should feel comfortable being in. Upon finding an empty seat, so he began looking for any incidents of maids being thrown out French ships or any instance of people stranded in Japan in the nineteenth century.
The research at first led him only to old ships of non-French origin and cold-blooded cases abroad. But an intriguing case popped up as he dug through a suspicious rabbit hole.
The Utsurobune incident. In the beginning of the nineteenth century, a woman with European features washed up stranded on the Tohoku coast on a hollow ship with a shape resembling that of a wooden UFO with transparent windows. This was during the middle of Sakoku, so a foreigner coming through, with such a vessel, to add, was strange and sparked curiosity of the Japanese of the time.
And the story ended as a mystery—though, modern interpretations put it as an illustration of the fear Edo Japan once had towards foreigners: that all cultural influences from the west are to be put under scrutiny and close surveillance, something to be feared.
As for what happened to the girl in the vessel…one version of the story recounted her speaking an unknown language, wearing a dress nobody could recognize, and carrying a box that nobody was allowed to touch. An old fisherman theorized upon the idea that she married on a foreign land, had an affair on her husband, and thus was sent into exile. In this idea, she’d be carrying the head of her lover in the box. Thus, according to tradition as described in the theory, she was sent back to the ocean in her vessel by the villagers.
Upon scrolling for sources on the story, Tsutae found a book on Japanese historical legends and stories. He searched the library for copies, and found one just on the top shelf of the top floor, untouched for perhaps decades. Afterwards, he borrowed the book for a week, promptly packed up, and left the library.
Gosh, do girls’ clothing stores have to be so luxurious and…deceptively hard to navigate?
He found himself lost between aisles of cute pink shoes, ‘girl power’ shirts, and school backpacks. He had never visited the women’s section of a clothing store before, and he didn’t expect there to be such variety right in front of him. From where he stood, it was clear he was exploring the young girls and teens section, so he got away as far as he could from there.
A stroll through fashionable belts, bracelets, necklaces, and coats later brought him to the underwear section. A splurge of anxious thoughts came to his head. Other people out shopping may think he’s here to check stuff out, because there’s little to no chance someone with his kind of style may have a girlfriend.
Anxiety aside, he tried to remember her request: panties and camisoles. He figured back then, bras must’ve not been invented yet, and he wondered how Hirano might think of one.
I could’ve asked for her size.
Though, how would she know? Perhaps bra sizes also had not been invented yet at her time. He scoured looking at the details of every bra and camisole available like an old pervert, and then realized he knew nothing about her torso to make a complete judgement. They all look ever so similar…
Her body shape is quite…medium-sized, if I remember correctly. Very fit, probably thanks to her culinary taste. Right, right, she comes from a rich family after all, so she’s probably well-fed. God, imagine how many children were raised stunted back in the old days.
No, stay in topic. What else…she’s short, maybe shorter than the average woman. Let’s go with that. So, I assume perhaps her torso is also relatively short. But all these camisoles don’t seem to take height into account, so it’s probably not important.
And her breast size is…Her breast size is…I know I can see the general outline of her that one time. Hm, I wonder how they’re shaped. Are they the type that’s firm and round or are they the type that’s…oval-shaped and maybe sway to one side—no, wait, there’s also the possibility that they may be of unequal sizes! Speaking of which, what do women even do in that situation, generally? Are there camisoles and bras designed specifically for unequal breast sizes, or do the size difference not matter too much that it becomes uncomfortable?
Man…are hers comfortable? I can imagine they…might be the type that perfectly fits in her hand? Her hands are small, though, so would it? Maybe it’s somewhere between an A and B cup. What about my hand? No, stop thinking about that.
Tsutae shook his head. He overthought it and it might have turned him on. Besides, it’s not like she’s going to show them once she wears them, anyway. In that case, anything was probably okay.
He picked a cream camisole and a white camisole of the same brand out of the bunch. The material seemed comfy and he imagined it to be comfortable. Next, onto the panties.
God, not the panties.
At the end of the aisle, a group of three high school students were checking things out. They were looking at several black and pink lace panties. No, wait, those are straddling on the line between practical underwear and lingerie.
As he got closer, he noticed them giggling at the designs, probably imagining what they’d look like if they wore them. He peeked a little at the designs they held and realized they may be too lewd to be worn by a high school student…
Though, who was he to judge? Not only that, what kind of store would sell such things as lingerie probably worn exclusively for sexual purposes, out in the open?
Two of the girls took notice of Tsutae’s presence. He figured they might pass a few words and comments about him being creepy. That shouldn’t hurt. With the three girls next to him as well as the desire not to repeat the same train of thought as before, Tsutae picked three pairs of unsuspicious and panties: one white, one pastel blue, and the other black.
Sweat gathered around his neck as he carried three pairs of panties and two camisoles around. Women, from the elderly to the teen, looked at him. In his mind, he made up thoughts of them whispering and commenting about him.
Before he got an escape at the cashier, however, he figured he should get new clothes for her. There are only three articles of clothing belonging to his ex-girlfriend at his apartment: a T-shirt, a cream buttoned shirt, and pants. Besides, having to see her wear the same clothes as his ex isn’t pleasant. So, he rushed to get a new T-shirt and a pair of shorts, just for home wear.
The problem of size returned. Going through the same, but truncated train of thought, he imagined an overview of her body shape as well as several nude silhouettes or photos of her, and picked one that looked nicest as he tried not to overimagine her body.
Thirty minutes later.
Tsutae doesn’t normally say a word upon coming back home, but the moment he opened the door the fragrant smell of basil and garlic attacked him.
“I’m…home.” He said.
“Welcome home! I…made some garlic bread with chicken today!” her jolly voice echoed. “There’s only sliced bread and leftover chicken, so they might not be so—”
Tsutae appeared at the door frame to the kitchen with a shopping bag.
“…ideal.” She remembered. “No way! Did you get them?”
“Finally!” She jumped in the air. “Let me see, let me see!”
“Wait.” Tsutae held one finger up in front of her. “Can I have one?” he picked up one of the pieces of garlic bread before she even answered.
“Of course! Why else did I make so many?
The awakening taste of garlic bread put Tsutae out of his tired mood. For a moment, he wished she wouldn’t leave. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone cook every meal for him from now on?
“Ah, Hirano. So, you wanted to try them out, huh?”
“Yes, yes please!”
“I’m warning you, though. I don’t know your body shape, so I might get the size wrong.”
“Hmph,” she pouted. “You could’ve asked.”
“That’s embarassing, isn’t it?”
She took the shopping bag from his hand. “No it isn’t! Is your humility worth more than your money?” She asked, moving forward and making a devious look.
“Give me a break. I don’t even know you that well yet.”
She raised her eyebrows. “Well, I hope these fit. Thank you so much, Kurone-san!”
So she took a detour to his room to get changed. The ruffles and scrambles of clothing made him only wish they’d fit. Otherwise, she might unintentionally make him slap himself for not asking for her sizes. As he listened, he could sense what article of clothing she was trying out. First, the camisoles. She probably looked in the mirror after each one. At any given opportunity, Tsutae would grab a slice of fresh garlic bread, enjoying the taste while not enjoying the anxiety. Soon, the rustling of clothes blended with the chewing of garlic bread.
When she finished, she released him out the confines of his curiosity and told him the results. From what Tsutae could already see, she had on the new shirt, not the new pants, and without wearing the camisole.
“Kurone-san…I don’t know what to say.” Her face seemed elated, but it could be disappointment in disguise.
“I didn’t know you bought other clothes!”
“Eh…I just thought you’d need them eventually, too.”
She snickered. “They fit!”
“All but one. The shorts are a bit too tight, but still wearable!” She scratched her head.”
“Ah, good to know.”
“And this, I don’t know what to say about fashion now. They’re honestly too complicated.”
“Well, maybe you’re right. Did women use to wear dresses back then?”
“Oh, of course. And it’s all the same, everywhere.”
“Well, times have changed. I guess people just want more styles of outfits. At least with this, you’d look normal.”
“Yes. Thank you again, Kurone-san!”
Amid the two enjoying the remainder of the garlic bread, a thought that once ringed around Tsutae’s head returned to bite him back. And he let it out. “Hirano,” he called. “I’ve always wondered what would happen if an officer found out I’ve got an illegal citizen in my apartment…I’d probably be arrested quickly.”
“Hm?” She hummed with garlic bread still stuck in her mouth.
“You don’t have any right to citizenship now. And that, I think, can get me arrested if anyone finds out.”
“Are you not worried at all about that?”
“How so? You got here so suddenly and with no idea where you are, but you don’t seem any worried.”
She finished her slice before replying. “I don’t know, Kurone-san. I don’t find worrying to be a good use of my time. Besides, I don’t think I can change anything about that now that I’m here. So, as long as I have someone taking care of me like this, why worry?”
“Shut up, don’t flatter me.”
She chuckled. “I’m not, that’s just how it is!”
“No, if anything, it’s you taking care of me. Look what’s on the table!” he denied, gesturing at the bountiful lunch they were having.
She sighed, adjusting her new shirt. “I just think it’s a relief that you didn’t kick me out, or anything.”
No comment. He finished the slice of bread and opened his bag, pulling something out.
What greeted the two on the dinner table was another, different textbook from yesterday, alongside Tsutae’s notebook.
“Oh, are you about to study again, Kurone-san?”
“Not studying…just finishing a task I can’t care about.”
“U-um…Kurone-san, when is the deadline?”
“Ah, right at midnight.”
“Um, how do I say it? I’d like you to maybe try a different study method.”
He raised his eyebrows. A new one? As if she herself is a college student.
“I’d like you to tell me a story!” she cheered.
“Y-yes, exactly! You know, I read a bit of the big book yesterday, and I just thought maybe you and I can understand everything better together if we just…turn them into fun little stories!”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“It’s not strange at all! I mean…I just thought I’d love reading stories about whatever it is you’re learning. How about we try it?”
Tsutae grimaced. “I’m not really sure what you’re going with.”
“Okay, let’s do it like this…Um, what is it that you’re studying?”
“What exactly about it?”
“Lipids and Proteins. Well…it’s the synthesis of proteins, really.”
“Hm…maybe this should be where the story begins. What’s a protein and what are they for?”
What even are they? Did I really apply for bioengineering without knowing what a protein is?
“They’re from…amino acids and these, like, carboxylic acids, but then they’re attached to each other through one carbon.”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand at all.”
“How am I supposed to make it understandable?”
“Hm…well, I’m not sure if this helps, but I remember what my uncle once said, someone masters a subject when they can make a child understand it.”
“Well, I’m not your uncle, sorry.”
Seeing her efforts going in vain, Tsutae returned to cluelessly doing his homework.
“B-but, you get what I mean, right? Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m thinking you haven’t got a grasp of the concept yet.”
“I know that.”
“So…rather than spending your time stressing over what’s in front of you, maybe start from the very basics!”
Tsutae opened the textbook and opened one of the first chapters, greeting him with a whole block of chemistry, a wall one must penetrate before even touching biochemistry.
Reading through the chapter required her to ask time and time again about what was being explained within, just to check his understanding whilst not understanding anything herself. He thought of it as annoying at first, though it surely did test whether he understood a topic or not. Each step of the way, the girl scrutinized Tsutae’s understanding, forcing him to stay for almost an hour before he could restate anything.
Step-by-step, the pair made every page theirs. Even she began to understand the material, often confused about how they may possibly tie in with the real world. Finally, they reached the part of the book about the building blocks of life. And at the end, she tested him again.
“So, what is a protein?”
“A protein is made up of amino acids which are made out of is made out of an amine group and a carboxylic group. The amine group has these two hydrogens tied with a nitrogen, and the carboxyl group is the same thing but with oxygen. The two are tied together by carbon. So a protein is…a string of theseamino acids tied with each other by peptide bonds.”
“Mhm. Doesn’t that feel a lot better now?”
“Gosh, I don’t know. Sure, I understand a little better, but I still can’t fathom how I’m supposed to take that and turn it into what this assignment is asking.”
“Well…at least you’re holding on to the basics better! Should we continue?”
Tsutae sighed. “Sure.”
“Next up, how do the amino acids define their function?”
“Oh, those…they’re determined by the ‘R’ group on the central carbon atom of the acid. They…”
And so the two continued up until nine o’clock. It was then that Tsutae finally received notes and answers from none other than Susumu Sakuma.
“Here they are, make sure you won’t need time travel to copy them in time!” his text message read.
Finally, he could copy it and modify it just enough to not look suspicious.
After the study session, both of them decided it would be time to go to sleep. Hirano went to get a change of clothes beforehand.
He opened the door to his room, and saw everything had been tidied.
The pens scattered in his table had been gathered into one cup container. The books in the same table had been neatly organized into textbooks, notebooks, and novels. He noticed one was on the bed, the same one he read to her the previous day. The blanket on her bed had been folded and perfectly placed in the corner. Piles of clothes, which she could tell were dirty, had probably been put into the washing machine (how she figured out what to do with those is unthinkable). All the while, dust gathering under the desk and next to wardrobes and beds have all been swept clean.
When Hirano had her clothes changed, Tsutae glared at her.
“Did you…do all this?”
She could only smile. “Well of course! I got bored, sorry.”
“Don’t you apologize for this. I don’t know what to say. Great work.”
She bowed a tiny bit. “T-thank you, Kurone-san!”
“I suppose you may sleep in my room tonight.”
The invitation took her by surprise.
“W-wha?! Sleep…with you?”
“Don’t be silly. I have a little portable matress, so you can sleep there. I’m still having my bed for myself. Or you could take the bed, and I take the matress.”
“O-oh…You’re the home owner, I think you should take the higher one.”
Tsutae sat at his bed, reading the book he borrowed from the library in such a level of concentration, so much so that Hirano couldn’t call him if she wanted to.
But she’s asleep on a matress on the floor. After all their practice together, it’s enough work to put her to sleep. Facing towards Tsutae, her pale face showed no thought nor did it indicate she was dreaming of anything. She’d make the same face if she were dreaming.
But Tsutae paid no attention to that. All he was interested in was the myth of her origins. The entry regarding the Utsurobune was only fifteen pages long, so the skim through was easy, and it informed him of nothing different from what he read online.
All, except for the last page.
After describing the fisherman’s decision to launch her back to the sea, the entry described the ‘box’ she brought with her not as a mere ‘box’, but rather a small knitted bag, containing within it an hourglass whose sand always fell to the opposite side upon one side being full. Certainly, something more interesting than a box apparently containing the head of her lover.
An hourglass for what?
The glare of the night sky deepened and engulfed the city. At that point, Tsutae turned sleepy and placed the book back into his bag.
There’s one thing he forgot to do that day, which is calling his mother. It’s late at night, she may not be awake.
“Micchan, is mom awake?” he texted to her little sister. She’s known to pull all-nighters, especially now that it’s exam week.
The reply came quick. “It’s this late, of course she’s asleep.”
“Damn, I forgot again.”
“It’s fine, Onii-chan! I’m sure if I’m in your position, I’d call even less often.”
He sent an affirmative emote reaction to her message.
“I’m not interfering your study session, am I?”
“No, I’m procrastinating.”
“Cool. Just like me,” he lied. Though he had been procrastinating a little too much before Hirano appeared.
“You brought that trait to me!”
“Nah, let’s say it’s genetic.”
Laughing and sobbing emotes.
“Alright, enough talk, onii-chan is going to sleep. You go back to studying, won’t you?”
“Gotcha, onii-chan. Goodnight!”
The following morning, Tsutae somehow woke up early. The maid, still deep in her slumber, breathed steadily as if automated. Her position did not change since the moment she laid on that mattress.
Tsutae walked away to the kitchen in an attempt to get any leftover slices of garlic bread. Upon opening the fridge, however, he noticed that there was only one slice left of it. He’ll need to buy food outside, and two portions, for both himself and Hirano. This has always been one of the activities of the week he’s laziest to do.
He wrote down a note on a piece of paper “Going Out to Buy Food” it said. He then went ahead to take a quick shower. The cold early morning water turned switches across his body, and he came out the bathoom energized in a way he hadn’t felt for a long time. Perhaps he does genuinely want to provide for her. That, he thought as he washed his face and long hair.
Following the shower, he opened the door to be greeted by Hirano’s face right in front of him. The glow of the morning sunlight against her face emphasized her bedheaded look. It didn’t help that he was shirtless, with only a towel around his neck.
“Uwah! What are you doing here?”
Only then did she realize he wasn’t wearing a top. While he wasn’t particularly buff, seeing him that way triggered something in her that she backed a little from her position.
“W-Waking up before I do…I had already set myself to wake up at sunrise!”
“Well that’s…your own fault!” Tsutae nudged her out of the way.
She grumbled as if disappointed in herself. “I-I’ll cook us something for breakfast quickly, okay?”
“Heh,” Tsutae grinned on his way to the laundry room. “There’s nothing for breakfast, unfortunately. I’ll get us something soon, don’t you worry.”
“What does that mean?”
“I can order something,” Tsutae’s voice echoed from the other room.
Hirano clenched her fist. “No way! Don’t…I can cook something better!”
“You don’t have to push yourself so hard. I’ve got it handled,” he said as he put on his change of clothes.
Tsutae exited the room with the front door keys in his hand. But before he could make it anywhere close to the door, Hirano grappled on his shoulder.
“Please, give me a chance!”
“I said I’ve got it handled!” he pushed, or attempted to push her arm away. But as he pushed her, he forgot his feet were still wet, and began to slip. The only thing he could cling to was her hand, and so he pulled her to his chest as he fell.
They fell to the floor, her head landing right under his chin. Meanwhile, her arms lay outstretched next to both of his ears.
“E-eh?!” she looked at him, attempting to rise up, pushing her hands against the floor. He shyed his eyes away in embarrasment. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to look at her eyes, rather it was how she wore such a wide-necked shirt in such a way that it exposed a part of her cleavage.
No, this is too close!
“S-sorry, sorry!” she pleaded, “Are you okay?”
Still shying away from looking, Tsutae hesitated to reply. “A-ah, I’m okay. You?”
She stretched her body before properly standing up again, extentuating her curves. It didn’t help that she sat almost right on his hips, slightly arousing him. She extended an arm out to help him get up after she did.
Tsutae wasn’t at all prepared for such a stimuli early on in the morning, and that threw him out of the loop, resetting his bedheaded and unfriendly mood with one more willing to negotiate.
“Um…do you need something like a massage?” she worriedly consoled.
“Definitely not. Totally fine, Hirano. It happens.”
“Are you sure?”
“110 percent.” Tsutae adjusted his clothes. “A-Anyway, where were you?” he asked, awkwardly smiling and still thrown off.
“Oh, right. Sorry for requesting such a thing, Kurone-san…but would it be okay if you bought fresh ingredients instead? I really don’t know what else to do here than cook.”
“Hm…” he stretched his torso. “Well your cooking is pretty good. Unfortunately, I barely know how to cook. Are you sure you’d get it finished quick enough for breakfast? Your customer here wouldn’t want to wait too long, would he?”
“What do you need?”
“U-um…” she scans her mind for recipes. “I know! Get some pasta, lemon, chicken fillet, and…I think that’s it. Everything else is already in your kitchen.”
Tsutae sighed. “Alright, if you insist. I’ll be back in fifteen minutes.”
So he stepped outside. Once again, the dirt in the pots were wet.
He returned home with the correct ingredients, though not the correct kind of pasta. If only she had specified that she needed linguini, not penne. Nevertheless, she prepared a pasta dish, freshly served with slices of chicken and seasoned with olive oil, basil, lemon, pepper, and cheese.
It was the first time Tsutae watched her cook something. Those elegant hand movements as she cut the chicken, so soft yet so fast. Not to mention how she did not need to measure how much to put in, seemingly knowing everything from heart.
Alas, in just fifteen minutes, everything was ready. Served on two plates and ready to be dined.
“Hm, hm.” Tsutae inspected the pasta. “Tender,” he snobbishly said.
Before Hirano could sit down, again, Tsutae made a simple request. “Napkins.”
Hirano sighed as he chuckled at how he could still refer to them as ‘napkins’.
“What are you laughing about?”
“Nothing.” He took a bite of the pasta. Again, it’s perfect. The depth of the taste of olive oil and onions made the lead, followed by the soft texture of pasta and cheese binding them together. As per usual, Tsutae took huge fractions of the dish with each twirl of the fork, while Hirano preferred to keep things simple and enjoy every bite.
Somewhere in the middle, Tsutae stopped to ask something. “Hirano, where did you learn how to cook?”
“Ah! I’m glad you asked. So…maybe you didn’t know this, but a lot of maids do work as cooks at the same time, or at least have it as a hobby. I wasn’t one at first, but many of my maid friends were…and that way, I just learned how to.”
“I see. You went pretty far into it.”
“Ah, no I wouldn’t consider it so.”
“At least you’re so much more skilled than I am. I still can’t cook after living by myself for so long.”
“Well I remember what one of my fri…ends…” she paused. The fork stopped in the middle of the air.
“A-ah, nevermind!” She sprung back to life, though still with a worried look on her face.
Tsutae left no comment about it. “You seem to really like cooking, don’t you?”
“Of course! To be honest, it’s probably one of my favorite things to do.”
“Hm, hm, that’s why you pleaded me to buy fresh ingredients, eh?”
“Very true! Cooking is one of those things that everyone needs, but you can still turn into a piece of art if you wanted to.” She began to blush. “I think…why I love it, would have to do with people’s feelings! When I cook something and it makes someone smile, it warms a part of my heart. I had always wanted to make something that makes people happy, whatever it is. It just so happened that I learned to cook. I say, if I could cook for a million people, no matter how much work I have to do, I’d still do it, because to enjoy good food, to me, is a human right.”
And Tsutae did smile. “That’s sweet of you.
“So how do you make a protein? It depends on the shape of the protein you want to make. Once the string of amino acids are long enough, they can make one of two forms, which are alpha helices and beta sheets. In an alpha helix, the amino acids like to spin around and dance together…I guess? Does that work?”
“Yes, yes! That sounds fun!”
“They…dance and spin around in these spring-like formations because a hydrogen bond forms between the…amine group and carboxyl group within one string of amino acids. Meanwhile, beta sheets have separate strings, and hydrogen bonds only form between the strings.”
“Mhm…and now, we take a break. Phew!”
“That was actually quite tiring. A drink, please. You don’t want to leave a customer’s thirst unquenched.”
Hirano rushed to get a drink from the dispenser and returned with two cups, one being for herself.
Tsutae chugged his cup rushedly. “Ah.”
“So that’s what I mean by making whatever you’re learning more like people!”
“Yeah, yeah, I get it. Imagine if you actually start to feel empathy for the proteins and acids…”
“That’d be quite interesting. Will that happen, though?”
“Eh, maybe, once I get to DNA and stuff…”
“I see…I don’t know what DNA is.”
“It’s coming up pretty soon. Better get your head prepared for that, it’s quite wild.”
“Hm…” she sipped from her cup. “When is your exam, again?”
Oh. It’s coming in a lot sooner.
“Si-no, five days.”
“Eh, looks like it’s quite soon.”
That’s right, just a couple of days ago, I actually took an exam.
The memories of that exam hall haunted him again. The sole pen, the greasy papers he had to write on, and the eyes glaring at him as he left…it all comes back.
Just as he reminisced, a text message appeared in his phone.
It had to be Susumu again.
“May I come over this afternoon?”
This is a hard question, perhaps harder than those he met at his first exam.
No, I can’t return the memories of the first exam back into my head.
“I won’t be home,” he simply replied.
“Inconceivable! I can’t believe a Tsutae Kurone would NOT be home at a nice Wednesday afternoon!”
“Ugh. How do I have to say this?”
I’ll need to hide her at some room.
“Alright, come over all you want.”
“I’m not intruding or anything, right? If you don’t want me in that’s fine too.”
“Nah, just come over, it’ll be fine.”
“THANK YOU TSUTAE!!”
“I’m always seeing you tapping your fingers on that thing. What is it?”
“Oh, this? Hmm…” Has the telephone even been invented yet? “It’s a communication device.”
She tilted her head.
“Might be hard for you to understand, but the point is, you can talk to people from far away with it. Don’t ever touch mine, though.”
“Amazing! The devices people come up with these days are so complicated! How does…this one work?”
Tsutae sighed. “Um, I don’t know either.”
“People these days are so weird.”
“No, the machines are the weird ones…I don’t know, the world went crazy and made very peculiar things after electricity was founded.”
“Hmph,” she pouted. “We had electricity in my days and everything was fine!”
“Well, it’s more than that! Learning how these things work would require so much work.”
“Ooh! Maybe we could study that together too?”
“Nah…I’m—this is more of a physics thing, I’m not good with physics.”
“Learning how things are built and how machines and objects work with each other is basically physics. On the other hand, I’m learning how living things work.”
“Living things? Don’t tell me…proteins are alive?”
“No, no, no, but they exist inside of us.”
“Hm…” Hirano zoomed into her hand. “I can’t see it.”
“That’s because…they’re just really really small, if you believe it. I guess, a lot of what people like me learn are just things that you can’t easily see.”
“Are they important?”
“Eh…not really. You can probably live just fine without knowing they exist.”
“Then why do you learn about them?”
Man, why on Earth did I ever think it was a great idea to apply to bioengineering?
“Good question. I can’t know myself.”
So be it. A brief moment of silence.
“Say, my friend suddenly said that he’ll be coming over this afternoon.” Tsutae changed the topic.
“Eh, how did they tell you?”
“Through my communication device, of course.”
“So…do you know what that means?”
She tilted her head. “Oh! I should make more pasta!”
“You’re not cooking anything.”
“Um…then maybe I can at least—”
“No need. No, not even that. I’m more sure that he’s going to freak out if he saw a girl in here.”
“Hm? Why so?”
“I don’t need to explain that. Haven’t I explained that can get me arrested?”
“T-then, what do I need to do? I promise I’ll work hard!”
“Can you work hard in not working, for once?”
“Look, he’s a good friend of mine. Serving him anything luxurious would probably be more awkward than flattering…and having you appear suddenly would prompt suspicious questions. I’d advise you to stay in some room, maybe.”
“I…see. B-but, you gotta give your friend more, Kurone-san! I’m sure he wouldn’t feel awkward at all! Everyone loves having lunch with a friend!”
“That wouldn’t be a problem if only I could cook.”
“That’s even better of a reason, Kurone-san! Wouldn’t you want to impress your friend?”
“Look, if you’re looking for more reasons to cook, you can, but…not for him.”
“Hmph. Might I as well just go all the way? C’mon, the lemon is gonna go bad if we leave it for longer!”
“Then what should I say to him when he thinks I cooked it?”
“Heh, is saying you learnt something new so hard?”
Tsutae thought about it. “Go on, then.”
As Hirano began to cook, Tsutae couldn’t help but to look at her again, from the way she elegantly mixes every ingredient with such precise measurements, to the way she often smiles at her own culinary masterpiece. As she says, her desire is to make people happy and smile as they eat. Such a pure desire, so cleanly encapsulated by her methods.
If I could cook for a million people, no matter how much work I have to do, I’d still do it, because to enjoy good food, to me, is a human right.
Those words escaped out neither ear when Tsutae first heard it, and it’s still ringing in his head. I wonder if she’s still saying that to herself now?
And to think she learnt it all from scratch with only the help of her friends…only to reach a level of expertise unimaginable to him. A blow of both pride and envy struck him, knowing he may not ever reach such a skill level in anything, yet also knowing that someone is this passionate about what they do and still doing it for the good of others.
What even are my hobbies? Maybe there aren’t any.
The thoughts endlessly followed him as he watched her fully concentrating on her craft. Before it was finished, he had already set out to his room, planning to play a round of two of Valiant to calm his mood as he waited for Susumu’s arrival.
After Hirano finished cooking, three plates of the pasta were up and ready on the dining table, but Tsutae was nowhere to be found. He was in his room, playing a casual game, though it seemed like he was about to lose.
“K-Kurone-san, are you okay?”
The only source of light in the room was from his PC as he tirelessly tapped through his entire keyboard and mouse, not even noticing her coming into the room. Until, he died again.
“Eat shit.” Words, followed by a light slam to the desk.
“What are you looking at?”
“This is…actually, I’m not going to bother explaining it.”
“And don’t ask me how it works again.”
“Okay, I won’t.”
Tsutae wanted to start talking to her normally, but he couldn’t bring himself to do so. Instead, all that came out were unseasoned words.
“He’s coming in about thirty minutes. You’ll be in this room as long as he’s around.”
“And don’t touch any of my things,” he added, starting another match. It didn’t seem like he wanted to talk.
“Um…can I read your book again?”
“It’s in the shelf.”
In the middle of his match, he was interrupted by the ring of his phone. Mother called. Not wanting to ignore her, he took off his headphones and answered while still playing.
“Tsu-tan!” Again with the greeting.
“Hey, listen, listen. You know, Micchan got a 92 in Geography!”
“Ah, nice, nice!” He dejectedly replied.
“Tsu-tan has to get a good grade too!”
“Mhm. Yes,” he said. Just then, he managed to kill an opponent. “Got them.”
“Hm? Tsu-tan, are you playing something?”
“It can’t be! I called right at the wrong time!” she sighed. “Well, enjoy yourself. Don’t forget to study!”
“Okay, thanks mom!”
And she hung up.
After two more defeats, Tsutae was greeted by Susumu’s text message telling him he had arrived.
“Stay here, don’t touch anything,” he told Hirano.
He left his room, and a gentle opening of the door later ended with Susumu’s face right in front of him.
“TSUTAE!! Nice to see you again, pal! Buddy! Bestie! Friend! Nig—”
“Alright, alright. Come in.”
“Hm?” Susumu lowered his glasses and inspected Tsutae’s face. “You look quite gloomy, anything up?”
“Imagine losing three ranked matches in a row.”
“Heh. Tragic. I say that’s a skill issue, man.”
“Yeah, whatever. Come in.”
“Woah, woah, I’m only gonna be here for a bit, you sure?”
“Have you had lunch?”
“Come in, I’ve…prepared some.”
Susumu took off his shoes. When he went to place them on the shoerack, the fragrance of Hirano’s cooking set in.
“Ooh, what’s this smell, I wonder.”
“You’ll see once you get in.”
Walking towards the kitchen, two fresh bowls of pasta lined up freshly, tantalizingly begging to be eaten.
“Unbelievable! Tsutae, cooking? Don’t say I’m dreaming.”
Tsutae chuckled. “Shut up. It’s…probably nothing that luxurious.”
“It smells pretty nice, though!”
“Yeah, I know…thank the ingredients.”
Somehow, the first bite of the pasta once again cured Tsutae’s mood.
“So, what brought you here, Susumu?”
“Great question! So…wait, my mouth is still full,” he mumbled. “This is really good!”
“…anyway, the professor summoned me today.”
“Oh, it’s Hasegawa-sensei from Cell and Tissue Physiology class. Exam results have been announced, you know?”
Tsutae’s fork paused in the air.
“Well, the results themselves should be in your email inbox, but here I’ve got the graded exam paper…just in case you’d like to see.”
“I’m prepared to be disappointed.”
“I sorta figured you wouldn’t come to campus to get them today, so I brought yours with me. You know how Hasegawa-sensei likes to burn papers her students don’t take back.”
“Part of me is saying I shouldn’t look at them.”
“You still probably should. Though, better finish lunch first.”
The both of them were fast eaters, much unlike Hirano, and finished in just under the next few minutes. As Tsutae washed the dishes, Susumu opened up his bag. He had with him several of his peers’ papers, most of them probably asking to bring theirs alongside his.
In his hand was a sheet of paper full of ink stains, scribbles, and wrinkles.
“Don’t worry, I didn’t look at it.”
“Right,” he took it from Susumu’s hands. He didn’t dare look at the final grade, though the red circle surrounding the number was tempting, to say the least.
“Mh…man, that’s really all I’m coming over for.”
“That’s all good, then.”
“You sure you alright serving me lunch like that?”
“It’s fine…I’m making up for yesterday.”
“Are you really Tsutae Kurone? Strange, you never do these kinds of things. Say, why don’t you make me some tea while you’re at it?”
“Come on, don’t you have like, a collection of antique rare tea in one of your cabinets?”
“O-oh, those. They’re quite old, I think they’re not good anymore.”
“Ah, silly you! You know they don’t spoil!”
“Check for yourself, then.”
Tsutae left his exam paper at the table, and Susumu went along with him to check the different containers in the kitchen. Tsutae used to have a huge gallery of tea back in the day, but sometime along the line, he decided to stop making them. For a while, he wondered whether Hirano had ever touched them.
And Hirano did see them walk to the kitchen together, making tea. But that was the least of her interest.
She knew she had been forbid from checking out what Tsutae had in his room, but a creeping aura called her from right next to Tsutae’s bag, moving her hand right onto it. Under a pile of clothes on the floor, there was a book. Its green hard cover was engraved with the title “Maritime Myths and Legends of Japan”.
The bookmark was set between two pages somewhere in the second half of the book. The title of the bookmarked chapter read “The Utsurobune Incident”, followed by an illustration that sent a chill through her spine.
The bulb-shaped ship of the Utsurobune landed on the Tohoku coast, carrying a single passenger: the victim of unforseen circumstances. The night the ship sailed next to the Baja California, a heavy rain struck. The angry tides spawned a ferocious beast, chasing the boundaries and ends of all layers of the sky.
The petals of thunder that stormed over the ship that very night sparked one that grew mad over the halting waves, pleading for a sacrifice to be taken. The sky grew a purply red encompassing every corner of the horizon, unpenetrable by the moonlight. A sign, that it wanted blood.
So the ship sent its delegate. When it rained in the east pacific, so too did it rain hard, two hundred years later, in Sendai. The sky turned red, yet there wasn’t a witness to the catastrophe. And so the lone delegate rode the vessel bound to Tohoku, to appear as herself, two hundred years later.
Nobody saw, nobody knew, and nobody could understand. Nobody, other than herself. Her fingers shook and vibrated, watching the scale of what she had been inflicted with. Promptly hugging herself to keep herself comfort, only then did she feel enough warmth to survive.
And the universe knows she will survive.
“Hirano? Is anything wrong?”
It was only five minutes following the departure of Susumu. After having earl grey with a zest of lemon, he seemed satisfied enough to return home, giving Tsutae a few words of encouragement alongside.
Tsutae then returned to his room, only to see Hirano with a paler face than usual. Her hands were shaking, her voice breathy, and her forehead sweaty. Even with all of this, she managed to stand up and gather enough of herself to say “I’m alright.”
There didn’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary, so Tsutae didn’t inquire further. Hirano stepped out of the room with one of Tsutae’s novels, and Tsutae returned to studying, this time alone in his room.
Though, he’s only using studying to hide how scared he was to look at his own grades—as if that’s going to change anything.
Three hours passed without either one talking to the other. Tsutae finally reached up to the material about nucleic acids, something he had always feared. He looked for reasons not to study, and it came at the right time as the scent of Hirano’s cooking seeped in through the closed door.
When Tsutae exited his room, he saw Hirano cook the remainder of chicken fillet he had bought the earlier morning. Meanwhile, his exam paper was still at the dining table.
“Hi,” Tsutae greeted.
“This is probably getting in the way.” He took the sheet off the table.
“It’s really not, but thank you.”
He sat at the sofa. Maybe it’s a good time as ever to read the results. Red pen scribbles filled the page. At each of the five questions, there were question marks, red circles, minus symbols, entire sections crossed out, and questions right back from the professor asking things like ‘Where did you get this from?’ and ‘Why?’
Why can’t I answer that?
Here he sits, in the middle of his own apartment, palms sweaty, ears deafened, and all he had to ask to himself was Why?
Why and how is it possible that he became such a failure?
Why and how is it possible that whatever he wrote on that piece of paper never escaped the surface of the course material?
Why and how is it possible that he’s…no longer himself?
No longer that kid who learnt how to read so quickly, no longer that overachiever throughout high school, no longer the one to have the backs of so many of his peers, no longer…something to be proud of.
And the only thing standing now…a piece of paper better left blank and devoid of questions nor answers. All the red and black ink had better dried. All the wrinkles and scratches better removed. But that isn’t happening. What now to do other than rip it apart? It will not survive for much longer.
What progress would studying even bring now? What can even be improved upon?
Tsutae placed the paper on his sofa, later glancing on Hirano as she continued her craft. Such a perfect person to do her own work. Look at her. Look at her finally getting him to study, after such a long time of his inactivity. Not even a college student nor someone any familiar with academia, yet somehow she manages to tower over him within just a few days. Look at her again, so passionate in what she does, while this man is here, contemplating not about what he likes, but rummaging to find any point of it all.
Look at that sly little smile. What would life be like without her? How many years have Tsutae stayed put, never knowing someone’s out here pulling all her effort, just for him?
It’s sickening. Please, don’t smile like that. Please, don’t look at me like that. I’m not a child, I’m not dependent on you. But I’m…so hopeless.
And out bursted a growl, ornated with tears instantly flowing down to his cheek. Covering his eyes with both hands, rubbing them to keep the tears inside, and lowering his back. As sobs began to echo, Hirano finally noticed and turned off the stove.
“No…” Tsutae denied. “Don’t come over to me.”
“Don’t tell me that!” She placed his hand on his right shoulder. Letting out a soft breath, she took a glance at the crumpled sheet of paper on the sofa. Placing her other hand on his head, she held on close and embraced him.
No words were needed to convey what he felt. The soft fabric of Hirano’s apron covered his eyes, absorbing the tears coming out. The soft sizzle in the background became the only noise in the room.
This warmth he knew will last for so long, even after she would leave. Pausing here, like a single statue bound together, is a sense of comfort that will never disappear, forever imprinted in his heart. It widened the space of his bountiful chest, pushing corners out the way, and cutting boundaries never before touched.
As his chest widened and lungs given a time to breathe, Hirano drew in closer, her neck and chest now pushing against his head. Ever so gently, the two were intertwined.
The soft carressing of her body against him slowed his heartbeat. All the while, she tried her best to bring the miserable man comfort, stroking her other hand against the back of his head and neck.
His breathing slowed with each stroke of his head. His hands grew less and less tense, eventually stopping him at a state of calm retrospection, still encapsulated within the warmth of her embrace.
“What is it?”
“Do you understand…How much it hurts?”
With every word that came out of his mouth, several tears were squeezed out his eyelids. Hirano kept patting his head.
“Everything is because of you!”
It may very well be, she thought, but she did not distance herself from embracing him.
“I’m spineless, powerless. Then why! Why…are you doing everything for me? A spineless man like me does not deserve…I don’t deserve anything! Look at me! I’m studying so enthusiastically, and for what? Is it just for you? You work so hard and yet—”
“Do you understand?!”
She let him sob for a few seconds before answering him. “I probably don’t understand Kurone-san very well.”
“And that’s fine… There are things that aren’t meant to be understood. But what I do know about you tells me great things, Kurone-san.”
Tsutae processed her words, and she talked again.
“Kurone-san is someone who loves his mother dearly, even calling her every day. Kurone-san is someone making great strides in his studies. Kurone-san is someone who very much appreciates his friends, even having tea time together with them!” She took a deep breath. “But more importantly…Kurone-san gave me more than I could’ve wished for. Kurone-san let me stay here, when I’m sure others wouldn’t hesitate to kick me out. Kurone-san let me read, buy ingredients for me to cook, sleep somewhere comfortable, and talk to him about so many things…”
Tsutae gently listened as his tears stopped running.
“After all that, of course I’d give it all to return the favor!”
“Hirano…Then still, how do I become…how do I say it? P-perfect, like you?”
A confused look blushed on her face. “P-perfect, me?”
Tsutae backed down a little and Hirano weakened her grip. “No, I mean…compared to me, you seem to have everything under control, while I can’t even do anything. No matter what, no matter how hard I keep trying, it’s always…hopeless.”
Hirano loosened her embrace, revealing his face tearful and red around the eyes.
“I’m just saying…you’re so good at everything you do. You can cook so perfectly, clean everything in my apartment…and you even study so fluently, even surpassing me. And yet, I’m the one in college, struggling. It’s like somehow, you manage my life better than I do myself. You’ve seen all I have, take them away, and do them better.”
Hirano could understand this. And so she lowered herself down level to Tsutae’s eyes, wiping away the remains of his tears with her long sleeves. As their faces became yet so close, she spoke.
“I’m sorry if you feel that way. But look at yourself, Kurone-san! I know it may not feel like much, but the fact that you haven’t given up this far means something: you want to do better. The way you put in so much into understanding every material you learn; the way you smile when you answer a review question correctly; the way you supported me just this morning…They all prove you have the commitment required to get what you want. And now all you need is time. I know you may have some problems in your life…but that can change, Kurone-san. I believe in that. It’s…like a ship! They have to pull through so many miles of ocean to get where they want…all they need is to keep moving.”
“You can keep moving, Kurone-san. I believe in that, and you can believe in it too.”
For a moment, Tsutae was lost for words. What he heard seemingly awakened something in him. He refused to look into her eyes and only looked down on himself, until he finally returned to look at her.
“You should continue cooking.”
“Will you be alright?”
“I’m okay.” Then he rose up and walked away to his room.
A red cloud appeared in the sky at the Tohoku night. It was a clear night at first. Everyone could easily see the stars ornating the sky if they wanted to. Children were seen exiting their homes, pointing at the sky and asking their parents to take a look.
It was a wide, rainlike cloud, but no storm occurred. It’s as if the cloud held all its water so tightly, refusing to let any of it let go. All the while, its form remained firm and static as it expanded.
Tsutae had turned off the lights of his apartment. Hirano was reading in his room. At that time, he gently opened the door outside and looked at the sky only to pass on no comment nor wonder about what he saw. Next he took a glance at the pair of flower pots next to the door and noticed that it’s still rather dry.
She hasn’t watered it yet.
So Tsutae rushed inside and filled a full bowl of water. It has been quite a while since he last committed to gardening, and he might have forgot a few things about it, such as how much water the plant requires.
No, what plant even is this?
He didn’t think about it and just gave it all the water he had. Unexpectedly, the moment he returned, there was Hirano rushing to the door.
“Oh, Kurone-san, what are you doing?”
“Mm…” he still avoided himself from her. “I’m watering my plants.”
“O-oh, I was about to—”
“I know, you’ve been the one doing it this whole time.”
“I can take care of them myself.”
Hirano lightly smiled. “Let’s go to sleep.”
The two got into their separate beds, though for whatever reason, Tsutae couldn’t fall asleep. The sound of sky trumpets, the glare of the red clouds above, it all put him into a restless surge of anxiety. As the maid fell asleep herself, Tsutae continued to scroll through his phone mindlessly.
Somehow, she did notice. She could feel how he breathed differently than usual. She could tell how his eyes were still open, and woke up with messy hair, calling his name.
“You can’t sleep?”
She looked slightly drunk, though it’s obvious she’s not. With a tired voice, she woke up and got closer to his bed.
“You seem…afraid of something.”
He nodded, again, finally turning off his phone. His forehead was sweaty and his heartbeats were irregular. At last, the tired girl offered to sleep next to him.
He reluctantly accepted.
While Tsutae sleeps facing up, Hirano sleeps facing one direction, so he could feel her caressing his body as she got closer and closer. Her hand was practically holding his. Her breaths were exhausted, yet satisfied. Her hair still smelled of his shampoo. The two did not share a single word, but they knew what the other was feeling. For Tsutae, it was pleasure and comfort. Someone like her…is willing to sleep next to him to help him sleep.
The warmth from her body finally closed his eyes.
Thursday morning. Tsutae was heading home from a little shopping spree. The first agenda was to buy some new clothes for Hirano. He didn’t know what in particular would suit her, so he bought whatever he thought were timeless and would not raise many eyebrows in the nineteenth century.
Second, he bought several seeds to plant in his flower pots. Umbrella plants, they were. He had always wanted to start growing them, but college life got the better of him before it could happen. Upon expressing it to Hirano, she finally encouraged him, saying ‘Do it! The poor seeds are just waiting to grow!’. That enough prompted him to feel bad for some mere seeds.
On his walk back home from the train station, his mother called.
“Tsu-tan! How are you feeling today?”
“Ah, I’m good, mom. Geez, I didn’t think you’d call so early today!”
“Of course I had to call early, it’s a Sunday! Chef Tanikawa’s show is on air!”
“Right, wow, I totally forgot!”
Ah, chef Tanikawa. She always tunes in every Sunday for the past year just to watch this young man.
Tsutae recalled how she fanatical she was about the handsome individual. She once said something about wanting to adopt him or get married to him, which is probably impossible considering he already is married.
I wonder if Hirano is a better cook than he is…
It had almost been a week since Hirano arrived in the life of Tsutae Kurone. Since then, he had enjoyed the company of beautiful cooking and much support. Initially, he only said he’d be buying plant seeds, but remembering how much she had changed his life, he decided to buy clothes alongside it. And now it’s time to reveal it.
“Guess what I bought.”
“…Seeds?” Hirano replied as she washed kitchen utensils.
“Nope, nope,” he teased, “I bought a little more than that!”
Out of his bag, he pulled out a long beige dress, one that looked like it would fit someone in the past, but not raise eyebrows in the modern world. Unlike old dresses, though, it didn’t widen up at the bottom and looked quite convenient.
“Woah…” she gazed in amazement. “This…is for me?”
For a moment, she couldn’t find the words for proper appreciation. “I-I don’t know what to say…Thank you, Kurone-san!”
“Try it on.”
When she exited Tsutae’s room with the dress on, they saw that it was a perfect fit. Hirano cupped her hands on her mouth upon seeing the mirror.
“This is so much better than what you had me wear before…”
“Heh. Is modern fashion that bad?”
“I’d say so,” she laughed. “Could I…keep this on the whole day?”
“But…” a worried look shaped on her face. And then a sigh.
“What is it?”
“N-nothing. Thanks, Kurone-san.”
Her look of dejection coupled with appreciation continued for a few minutes as they had their lunch together. Not a word was shared between the two at that time.
And yet, just an hour later, as Tsutae was in the middle of a match, Hirano barged into his room with a hesitant expression. Her lips struggled to find the right words.
“Hirano? What’s wrong?”
She took a little while to reply. “Kurone-san.” She called. She held the door handle tightly and bit her lip.
“I want to go outside.”
An unexpectable request. So unexpected that Tsutae would’ve wanted her to restate it. All he could imagine was Hirano having a panic attack beside him, hanging on to dear life at the sight of technology.
“Aren’t you afraid?” he asked.
“But…” she glanced at the front door in the distance. Fidgeting with her fingers, she said “I think I’ll have to do it sooner or later.”
And that made sense to him. For someone who had been isolating themselves for a month or so, he wouldn’t wish that upon someone else, especially not someone who gave himself the drive to come out of his shell.
“Besides,” she added, “it may look pretty after a while. Also, I have this nice outfit on!”
Tsutae let out a deep breath and left his game. His team was about to win it for him, anyway. “You’re impressive, huh?”
“W-what?” she raised her open palms. “How so?”
“You’re not afraid to face what you’re afraid of. That’s a bit paradoxical, but that suits you, doesn’t it?” He rose from his gaming chair.
“Don’t flatter me like that. I just feel…it’s better to face something directly than avoid it.”
“And that’s exactly what I’m saying,” he patted her shoulder. “So, where are we going?”
She smiled. “Like I know any nice places in town.”
“Good point. Then,” he took a moment to think, leaning against the back of the sofa. “You know, my university has this museum close by. It’s a natural history museum!”
“Natural history? That sounds brilliant! It’s close, huh? Have you been there before, Kurone-san?”
“Just once. It was actually before I got accepted into college, so I’ve probably forgotten most things there.”
“Well, let’s go!” With such enthusiasm in her way of words, he doubted whether this was the same girl who got frightened by the outside world like last time.
Upon stepping out, however, he realized it had to be true. She began to shake but stayed close, holding on and keeping herself comfortable by her side. As they walked down the stairs, time and time again, Tsutae would ask whether she felt okay. And step by step, they reached the bottom.
There, she got to be close to dirt.
“Ah, somehow…this feels so close to home now!”
“I’m glad. Look over there,” he pointed. A short dirt path cut diagonally through an empty patch of land, a small shortcut alternative to the intersection. The station is a ten-minute walk from the apartment. Definitely not far enough to become a nuisance. In this case, Tsutae only found her questions amusing.
“Why don’t people now use horses anymore?”
“Why are the buildings so tall?”
“Why are the roads so gray and wide?”
“Why are there wires across the roads?”
“Why do people walk so fast?”
Questions with answers for each, yet none that Tsutae was able to explain. She didn’t think it mattered, either. As long as she went on an adventure, there was no need for answers.
The time came for them to enter the train station. Given that she’s not a citizen and therefore does not have a ticket, this was where the two had to be sneaky. When the previously small crowd dissipated, the two made it an opportunity to push past the gates, hoping that no security camera watched them. The way she kept questioning on trivial matters didn’t help.
They boarded the train going south on the Senseki line, As per usual for most of Tsutae’s mornings. Meanwhile Hirano found it hard to contain her excitement.
“These trains don’t run on steam anymore?! That is wild!” she exclaimed, grabbing the attention of a far-seated old woman. Maybe that made her feel young.
A drop-off later, and the arrived to the central station of Sendai. There were a lot more people there. By that point, Tsutae had to physically move her through the crowd of people as she continued commenting on people’s attire, mannerisms, and way of speaking. Here, they changed to take the subway that leads directly to the university.
And again, the moment they boarded, Hirano gasped and stood in awe at the magnificence of a train going through a tunnel.
When the train finally stopped, the two walked away to their destination: The Museum of Natural History of the Tohoku University.
“So as I understand it, the trilobite is one very diverse arthropod group…which is to say, insects. I think they used to be plenty back in the Cambrian to Permian eras, probably spread far and wide like ants today, except they lived in the ocean and were bigger than ants.
You see, back then, insects used to be the dominant animals. But they lived in oceans, not land like they do now. You could say the trilobites are the most abundant insects throughout much of the time. They appeared first in the Cambrian era, and survived all the way through the Ordovician, Silurian, Devonian, Carboniferous, and Permian.”
Hirano looked at him, somewhat confused about what all those words meant.
“S-so, these different eras are just scientists’ way of separating the timeline of natural history. It means that nothing much really changes within one era, but there are significant biological and geological differences between one era and the other. More often than not, a change in era means an extinction event occurred.”
“Extinction event? Damn, that sounds…scary.”
“It is. But these little insects, they managed to survive probably three of them: From Cambrian to Ordovician, Ordovician to Silurian…there wasn’t one between Siluran to Devonian, so the next was Devonian to Carboniferous, that to Permian, and then the Permian extinction finally got them.”
“Ooh…they’re kind of cute, though, and strong for surviving all of that.”
“Cute?” He eyed on one of the fossils. “I don’t know where you got that word from.”
She giggled. “Can you eat them?”
“I mean, if they were alive now, I think they’d be something like shrimp, right?”
“Ah…you’re not wrong, sure. You’d cook one, wouldn’t you?”
She smiled. “I see no reason why not.”
The museum of natural history contains open halls and exhibitions dedicated to showing off fossils from different eras of the world’s history. As they passed through, Tsutae could only babble anything he could find in his head about his findings. Hirano would patiently listen, barely understanding a thing and asking him only questions she thought would make sense.
The crowd that day was minuscule, given that it was a Thursday. This gave them a lot of space to marvel and gaze upon bones and fossils held together by strings and placed on pedestals. Such marvel came about when they arrived at one of the main attractions: A reconstructed dinosaur.
“Was this…a lizard?”
Tsutae wasn’t a sucker for dinosaurs. He cared more about the little things like plants and insects.
“Probably. I guess they were, technically.”
“I know! Lizards back then used to be tall, like giant monsters.”
“Then…like snakes with legs?”
“Sort of. But I think there were also flying ones…”
“No way! Dragons are real?!”
“You could call them that.” He looked at a helpful chart on the wall displaying the history of dinosaur paleontology as well as the timeline of dinosaurs in natural history. “Actually, you know how these bones are unearthed by researchers?”
“What if…miners from ancient times actually did find them? And then, because they couldn’t explain where they came from, they made up a creature called the dragon?’
She gave it time to think. “You know what, that actually makes sense! And maybe all mythological creatures just came out of people trying to explain these bones they find everywhere!”
Following the dinosaur section, they finally got to check up on plants. There weren’t as many plant fossils, but nevertheless, Tsutae became entranced. At each exhibition, he read up on all the facts, poured them out to his level of understanding to Hirano.
“…so the first plants to appear on the earth were algae. They’re very simple and versatile, floating about in the water, so it’s easy to see why. Afterwards, though, they learnt to grow on rocks and evolved to become the first mosses!”
“Interesting,” she leaned next to him. “Kurone-san, you really love plants, huh?”
“How would I not?”
“I feel you really brighten up when you talk about them.”
For a second he thought about making a short, meaningful remark about plants the same way she did about cooking, but none came up. It seemed he had always liked plants for no particular reason, that it had been his dream to own a wide garden or create medicines out of plants since he was just a little boy.
A long time ago, he used to mix and crush leaves to make what he called ‘potions’. It’s a distant memory, but perhaps even that was what motivated him to apply to bioengineering.
I never quite thought about that.
“They’re just appealing to me in a way I don’t understand. It’s just sweet to take care of them and make them grow. Or maybe it’s something else.” He scratched his chin. “They are things we see almost every day yet actually end up being so complex.”
It was around three o’clock in the afternoon when they finished their tour. They exited the museum to see a crowd close by, all wearing a red-and-black shirt. It seemed like a university club was having a meetup. Many members of the crowd had brought sheets of paper bound to a clipboard, with their pens ready at their disposal.
In a quick attempt to escape the crowd, Tsutae suggested that the two should have lunch together at a popular and cheap ramen place. He’s not sure how her French palate may react to traditional Japanese food. All he could hope for was her not spitting anything out. That ramen cup she had on her first day here was just practice for the real thing.
The restaurant was surprisingly sparse. There were a few students nearby whom Tsutae was sure he had seen before but couldn’t pinpoint names nor character. Fearing they may notice him better than he does, he directed Hirano to two counter seats, facing the chefs. They always looked at her menacingly, just for a few seconds, before hearing her talk to him in Japanese. Only then would they respect her space.
This particular ramen restaurant had a short bitter history with foreigners, namely an internet celebrity who had to be kicked out after allegedly yelling at the top of his lungs inside.
“I honestly don’t know what to choose…these all look fantastic.”
“Then, what about—”
“The kitchen looks phenomenal!”
“A-ah, yeah. Would you like to work in one?”
“Of course! But I don’t know anything about ramen.”
Tsutae snickered. “Well, of course. You know, there are certain utensils specific to Japanese cuisine, and so Japanese kitchens and western kitchens look very different.”
One of the chefs started to pester them on their choice of lunch. Tsutae picked his favorite: Sendai Miso Ramen with extra spice, and picked her a more tame choice.
Their orders came, with Hirano’s plate considerately having a spoon instead of chopsticks. Hirano took her first taste before Tsutae did, just in case it didn’t fit her. As the noodles entered her mouth, she concentrated on the bowl, her mind focusing on taste more than anything else. It took a while for the taste of miso to be absorbed by her tastebuds, but as it did, it seemed to spread a wave of satisfaction throughout her face, like a sponge thrown into water.
“Heheh. Delicious isn’t it, young lady?” The chef commented in a whim, almost impulsively as she commented. “Miso ramen is our specialty.”
She merely smiled.
“By the way, is she your girlfriend?” he asked Tsutae. It seemed like a near-attempt to whisper that ultimately gave up in the middle.
“Ah…” Tsutae glanced. “N-no, she’s a close friend of mine.”
“I see.” The chef stood up with his hands on his waist. “Good for you! We rarely get foreigners here!” He laughed maniacally.
Tsutae faked a laugh alongside him.
“By the way,” he glared at her, “Nihongo wa jouzu desu ne!”
An expected comment.
Things took a bad turn right as they were about to finish their bowls. Well…Tsutae had finished his first; it seemed like Hirano enjoyed hers a bit too much and savored each scoop of the miso. This savoring of her bowl ended up being a detriment, as a familiar face swooped into the store.
Tsutae gulped upon seeing their faces from a distance. Susumu and Sanae walking together towards the restaurant.
“Hm?” She woke up from a wet dream of miso and ramen. With her face still lit up and blushing, she asked, “What’s with them?”
“No, it’s nothing with them, it’s just you! They really shouldn’t…”
She took another scoop, slurping the noodles loudly.
“Oh, I see!”
“They’re coming. Just preted you don’t know me, okay?”
Sanae walked very close to him as he led her to the restaurant. When he saw Tsutae having lunch in, he greeted him at the top of his lungs.
“Tsutae!! Nice to see you today!” He yelled and rushed to sit down right next to him.
“Hey, wait for me!” Sanae followed. “Man, did you even remember I was with you?”
“Come on, you were the one who invited me to go running!”
“But not now!”
The girl glanced at Tsutae, staring into an empty bowl of ramen. “Oh. Tsutae…is it?”
“Ah, right. I haven’t properly introduced you two. Sanae, this is Tsutae.”
“Hm…” she inspected his face. “Aren’t you the one who left the exam hall early that one time?”
He grumbled. “Don’t talk about that. That was a moment of weakness!” He drank the remainder of the miso soup in his bowl.
“Well, um, Tsutae, what are you doing here on a Thursday? You don’t have classes today, do you?”
“Ah, I decided to visit the museum today…”
“Museum?! No way, imagine going to the museum alone…you could’ve invited us!”
He snickered. “Nah, I enjoyed myself.”
The pair placed their orders, and just then, Hirano finished her bowl, drinking in the miso soup just as he did. Just as he was about to leave with her inconspicuously, Susumu interrupted him.
“Oh, right. Tsutae, about the tea yesterday. I’m…quite sure they’ve spoiled.”
He wasn’t sure what to comment.
“B-but don’t worry, I don’t think there are any bad effects of it. In fact, Sanae found something out about them. Spill it!”
“Hey, why me? I don’t remember it as well as you do.”
“It’ll be fine.”
“Ehem.” She put her fingers together. “If Susumu described them correctly, the tea mix you have probably contains chamomile or balm seeds! And given that they’re already stored alongside tea, spreading them in dirt may actually get it to grow. The tea could act as a natural fertilizer!”
That’s convenient now that I’m starting to garden again.
“Interesting. Though, I don’t quite remember them having any seeds. I may check them out, though!”
“Mhm. Be sure to! Susumu said you liked gardening.”
“Y-yeah.” He glanced at the wall clock.
“Well, it’s about time we—I go now. See you!” He put the cash on the counter, paying for both meals, and gestured at Hirano only to leave after he’s gone.
A day well spent.
Friday. Close to sunset, Tsutae started tending to his plants again. One half of each pot were empty or its plants were already dead. Still with no idea what of he had previously in the pots, he decided to throw them all away, with Hirano’s consent after she took care of them previously. He planted the dwarf umbrellas in the left pot and dedicated the experimental tea-planting to the right pot.
Dwarf umbrella plants are simple, beginner-friendly houseplants that one can care for from its seed phase. They’re versatile and grow quickly enough for Tsutae’s desire.
As he planted the seeds in and watered them, he recalled how exactly he gave up on his previous plants. At some point, he must’ve gave up on everything, living the days as-is, waste his time gaming, and expect nothing. Surely enough, all of it would result in nothing. Such a shame…he remembered them being so beautiful.
If only she had appeared sooner, he wished. But that’s only idealizing. Maybe he needed to stay in such a bad state, only for him to learn from it once it hurts him.
When he arrived at the thought, every corner of the pots had been watered. He couldn’t tell why, but there’s a point when one is used to gardening enough that they can feel water getting absorbed by the seeds. And once it happens, all he needed to do was wait.
Hirano showed up outside soon after. Wearing the perfectly fitting dress alongside a blank shirt, her formal look still unfamiliar to him. Tsutae was tending to the drier plants he had left behind without care, uprooting nearly dead weeds as well as struggling to keep them upright.
“Aha! I knew you’d be here. I haven’t asked, what are you planting now?”
“Dwarf umbrellas!” he paused. “…and also whatever seeds were in my tea leaf stash.”
“Hm…I don’t quite know what dwarf umbrellas are,” she smiled.
“Well, they’re relatively small plants whose leaves come out eventually like little exclamation marks, and then they go around the center stem like an umbrella, which looks really nice. I originally thought about buying caladiums, but I have a personal vendetta on large leaves.”
“Large leaves? Why?”
“I ate a big leaf in the forest as a kid, and got really sick because of it.”
“That’s…an interesting story.”
“That alone told me they’re not to be trusted.”
Hirano smiled, feeling quite proud that Tsutae was finally enthusiastic about something.
“Do you like tending to plants as much as studying them?
“I suppose so. They’re a pain to study, though.”
“Plants are a lot like machines, I think. They’re complex in ways we never really understood previously. Especially in regards to how they grow.”
“How do they work?”
She nodded. Tsutae stood up, having taken enough care of the barely-living plants.
“So, plant leaves are a complex thing themselves, but they basically absorb sunlight. Meanwhile, the plant’s roots absorb water and a plant tissue carries them over to the leaves. It sounds like magic, but the water and sunlight somehow make energy together. This energy is taken away back from the leaves to the whole plant through another plant tissue and then they’re used to grow…” he takes a breather. “…in three different ways. There’s the apical meristem that makes the plant grow up, but also downwards, extending the roots. There’s the intercalary meristem that raises the distance between two plant nodes. And, there’s the lateral meristem that makes everything wider, basically. So, that’s why plants grow!”
“That…I have no idea what you just meant, but it all sounds really smart!”
“Nah, not really,” he shyed. “It’s a lot more complicated than that, but that’s the general gist of it.”
“You told…a story.”
“Yeah, that’s what I always meant about telling a story! I like hearing that! How it starts from water and sunlight, but then they bind together and make the plant grow.”
“Glad you like it. None of that are in the next exam, unfortunately.” He walked towards the door. “I should probably start studying again, do you mind?”
The sun lowered the top of its head nearing nighttime. The moment he went back in, the sky darkened and shadows blended with the blankness of the horizon. Hirano hesitated to walk back in.
“Hirano? Anything wrong?” He turned around.
“Hey, Kurone-san…you can’t possibly have forgotten, right?”
A strong wind blew.
“I remembered something. You’ve got a book, don’t you?”
The imagery of the Utsurobune came back to mind. Its hollow shell, the woman carrying the forbidden box, the fishermen’s debate, her tossing back to the ocean. Everything in that book…there’s no way it could’ve been her, right?
“Did you read it?”
“I did. I-I know you told me not to, but I knew I had to once I—”
“Don’t apologize for it. What did you remember?”
“It’s not something someone like you can understand, Kurone-san. That night on the ship, I saw something I shouldn’t have. The sky was red…all over. The waves were violent, unforgiving. And I received the punishment.”
“I saw the red clouds dancing in the sky in the middle of my shift. Standing at the edge of one of the balconies, the fellow maids suddenly went over. We all felt something that pushed me into the water that night. I, for one, knew the sky pursued a sacrifice, and I had to be that sacrifice. Claire. Anne. Giselle. Vivienne. They all insisted that I had committed an affair with one of the passengers aboard. For that, they pushed me into the water. But this time, the water became calm and level, like a flat field. And I was thrown away.”
As the words came out of her lips, the scenery behind her changed. It was no longer an early nighttime scenery, decorated with streetlights slowly turning on. Instead, again, the sky turned red, deeper than that of the night before. But this time, no children noticed, neither were there any reports of it.
But they didn’t know anything at the time. The moment Tsutae saw the brightening night sky, he asked her to come in.
“Kurone-san, I’m scared.”
When she’s the one suffering from hardship, he doesn’t know how to comfort her the same way she did. All he could do was hold her close, make sense of whatever was going on, and keep her from losing it. He guided her in and closed the door. As soon as he did, she turned her head around.
“I haven’t told you something, and I’m sorry about it. It might be sudden.”
“Sute Hirano…is not permanent.”
A short wave of silence. The wind kept on blewing by the reddening sky.
“Sute Hirano is not meant to exist here.”
“It’s true. When the world asked me to be sacrificed…it’s the way it was meant to be. Of course, the fact that I arrived here so many years later was nothing short of a coincidence. I’m not meant to be here. The fishermen who sent me back into the ocean didn’t know that my vessel would survive.”
Hearing her recount her own story somehow weakened Tsutae’s own grip in reality.
What is she saying? How could any of this be real?
“Hirano, stop.” He crouched down, one hand against his right temple. “Please, stop. I don’t want to hear any of that.”
A headache. The pain of it bounced around in his head for a short while, stopping his mouth from articulating anything. It scratched the corners of his mind, grinding against them at every point of contact. As his view spun around without a clear direction, Hirano stepped to clear his mind.
“I’m so sorry, Kurone-san, are you okay?”
“I can’t tell. You…I don’t want to know what happened to you.”
“I won’t tell you anymore. Just…please be okay.”
She started to massage his head. The more she continued, the safer and safer his head felt, until a breeze replaced the pain. It’s as if the cool air outside seeped in through the window and gave his head some rest.
“Hirano. When you told me you wouldn’t be here for much longer, what does that mean?”
“It’s tomorrow. I can tell.”
“The Utsurobune will return to take me back.”
“No, no. No way!”
“I’m very sorry, Kurone-san. It’s…I really should’ve made it clear earlier.”
Teary remnants formed in Tsutae’s eyes. “But…no! You can’t leave…”
Seeing him that way, she, too, began to veer away from seeing him. As apprehensive she might be about him, there’s no way she will not return.
“Tomorrow morning, I want you to take me to the beach.”
“No! I don’t want to send you back that way!”
“Kurone-san,” she moved closer. And with both her hands and on her knees, she caressed his entire body in her embrace. He would follow afterwards, though with a much weaker grip around her.
“There’s no way…”
“Listen, Kurone-san. I hate to leave you this way. But it’s me who is not meant to be here anymore. I know you find it hard to understand…I sometimes do too. I know you can survive.” Tsutae hugged her more tightly. “I know you can survive,” she restated. “You’ve done so before…and you can keep the memory of me very close to you. As close as you so want it.”
He did not say a word. Slowly digesting the information and accepting all she had to say, Tsutae held on close. Her long hair brushed against his ears. Her new dress…the texture of her shirt, her breathing, her heartbeat in sync with his, he only wanted to get closer.
So he widened himself from the legs up and pushed her into his embrace. But as it happened, she did not expect him to pull her so close. Given she sat on her knees, his pull only brought her forward, leaning against him.
Hirano lost balance. Right as she called his name, she fell hard right onto him.
Their lips lightly touched.
As the two noticed, a shock rushed through both of their bodies. Tsutae gave in to her falling on top of him, and collapsed on the floor. Hirano held herself on, supporting her body with her hands beside Tsutae’s body.
The two passed blank stares at each other. Only a few seconds later, they realized the gravity of the situation, and hindered both their views, blushing. Their silence lasted for almost half a minute, when Hirano pouted. “You didn’t have to push me so hard.”
She rose up from right on top of him, still avoiding looking at him directly. On her way back to the room, she looked at him, still lying on the floor, one more time, and smiled.
Tomorrow is a new day.
“The mRNA in question, however, only ever wants to pick one of the two open DNA strands. This is because while the DNA has a double helix form, RNA is a single helix and can only transcribe one strand, called the sense strand. In this case, the RNA pairs with the sense strand, but using the nitrogenous base Uracil to match with Adenine instead of Thymine. Eventually, the mRNA is satisfied, and then the DNA tells them ‘Right, you’ve got all of them copied, you ought to build a protein out of it.’
But before they can do that, there are parts of the mRNA that aren’t used to synthesize proteins, called introns. Those are promptly cut off from the mRNA before they get to the ribosome. It’s like they throw away the parts they don’t need and only send the parts needed…
Now the messenger reaches the ribosome after being cleaned up, which is like a protein factory. The mRNA has sent every ingredient needed to make the protein, so all the ribosome factory needs is to build it. The ribosome’s factory parts are the transfer RNA’s, which are like little workers, copying down whatever the messenger brought, and then they build those into proteins. Each sequence of three nitrogenous bases translate to one type of amino acid, and one messenger RNA can have a long string of nitrogenous bases. So in the end, they’ll produce a massive string of amino acids to make a polypeptide,”
He narrated. Hirano has long fallen in and out of sleep in bed, listening to Tsutae’s story about the life of a messenger RNA. But now he figured it’s time to sleep.
The two of them had agreed to sleep together again. After the incident just a few hours ago, they knew they wanted to feel it again, though none of them were bold enough to say it out loud.
This time, Tsutae tried sleeping on his side, making her his human bolster for the coming night. As their heartbeats matched and calmed, slumber set in underneath a red sky.
Later that morning, Hirano held on to her pocket tightly. She had in her pocket an hourglass, now its sand nearly running out. There’s not much time left. After taking a shower, she made her final parting to Tsutae’s apartment.
She had put on the dress Tsutae bought for her. She’s majestic, queenly and deserving of all love and care. Tsutae held her hand tightly and turned off the lights before locking the door.
“I believe they’ll grow nicely,” she said, looking at the pots.
“Well, it’s still about two weeks to germination. We shall see very soon!”
The pair went through the same path they took earlier Thursday. I can’t believe it has only been three days since…
That dirt path, taking a fork to the right eventally leads to the smell of the ocean. So fresh…so clean.
The salty waters of the Tohoku coast that day echoed the aura of the deep blue sea. Fragrant sand shined bright beneath the halo of the early morning sun. It was a quiet, serene morning.
As they continued their walk, they reached the perimeter of the beach sands. Waves were gentle and only rubbed the sandy beaches, massaging it bit by bit, sending seashells and debris from miles away. They spotted water bottles, coconut shells, dead leaves, planks of wood, bolts and nails, a pair of chopsticks, and colorful rocks.
Years upon years ago, it would’ve been her vessel.
Tsutae pondered at this thought as her hands remained so warm. How many people here have seen the same debris come past and return, swallowed back by the sea time and time again, for years?
For a moment, he could feel it, envisioning the everlastingly living coastline as it progressed throughout the years. The sight of old trees lining up right by the sandy coast. Perhaps an old fisherman returning after his daily catch. An old, nut-shaped vessel of a girl from a foreign land. The debate among the fisherman over her life.
And even after that, nothing would have changed. He could see a woman in late Edo attire, sitting side-by-side with her husband, resting her head upon his shoulder. Maybe ten years ago, they would’ve sat at the same sandy spot, young and innocent. And seventy years after, the woman would be sitting all alone, reminiscing every memory of this beautiful coast.
Then, he saw old soldiers. God knows what they’re training out here in the Tohoku coast. The commander shouting his words, being listened to every ear as they repeated each of his commands. Lining up perfectly, they showed no defiance to discipline.
And then he saw…the tsunami. He hadn’t moved here at that time, though the news still ringed clear in his head. The rubble and debris coming into the ocean after everything had subsided. The costly damages to infrastructure across the Tohoku region. The thousands of lives lost. Yet in such a short time, there are few remains of the ruin that took place.
At the end of all of this, he saw…himself. Standing here, as if the horizon had become a mirror. Compared to everything this coast has seen and yet remaining unchanged, what does he have to offer to the world? He’s small, and yet everything he knows has been bound to himself. In a way it’s destructive, but in another perspective, he found himself lucky. Lucky to have a place to live and not have it ruined by disaster. Lucky to still have someone beside him to support him every step of the way. Lucky to only have the challenge of college life in front of him, never having to worry about war, hunger, and loss. And with all that, he could smile.
That snapped him out of it.
“Are you scared?” she asked.
“I don’t know.”
“I think the vessel is coming. Do you think you can make it by yourself?”
He took a deep breath. “I can. You’ve showed me how to, didn’t you?”
“Where are you going, really?”
“I can’t tell for sure. But I understand that I have to do it.”
He smirked. “You’re always so calm despite knowing nothing about it.”
“Of course! Maybe I’m…built that way. It’s a lot like you. Just as how sometimes you don’t have to know how something works, I don’t have to know why something happens. It is only a matter of fate.”
As they stood, the sky became clear again. For the lost Sute Hirano, it is a calling for her to disappear.
“It is coming.”
“I…see. You’re not aboard a physical vessel.”
“If I were, you wouldn’t let me aboard, would you?”
Tsutae blushed, but she’d be correct.
From her pocket, she pulled out two things: her hourglass and her heart necklace.
“There’s so little sand left,” she said. “Kurone-san, I’d like to…give you this,” she presented.
“H-huh? But it’s…”
“It’s alright, take it. Looking at how I feel now, I think it’s obvious you should have it.”
Both of them smiled.
“Then,” Tsutae glared. “Is this it?”
“I think it is.”
They shared their body warmth.
“Can I call you Tsutae?”
He gasped. “Of course you can, Sute.”
“Tsutae…I want you to know that other than me, there are so many people who love you dearly. Your family, your friends, and even your plants…need you. When I leave, I want you to survive…I believe in you fully.”
He held both of her hands. They were sweaty, but growing dry. “Sute…”
As the last bit of sand in the hourglass fell, Sute put her hand at Tsutae’s shoulder and held him tight. Her body, alongside everything she had on her, began to turn to dust, so cleanly and evenly.
“Thank you,” Tsutae said.
Starting from her back, all the way around her body, untying every knot around her skin.
“I loved you.” Her final words echoed as the last of her body began to disappear. At such a clean process, Tsutae could only marvel and hold her tight in disbelief. But before he could grab a hold of her, the body of Sute Hirano, the lost maid of the ship, the princess of the Utsurobune, had vanished, once again taken as a sacrifice to the world.