About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Book Girl and the Undine Who Bore a Moonflower
By Mizuki Nomura
Yen PressCopyright © 2013 Mizuki Nomura
All right reserved.
When we were separated, she left behind pain that threatened to shred my heart, a slight resentment, and gentleness.
I never understood what she was thinking when she chose that path, and all that was left was to weep until my throat was raw. She herself probably couldn’t have given me a clear answer about why she’d had to make such a painful choice.
Did she really have to do that? Couldn’t she have chosen a kinder option? Then the two of us could have stayed in our happy dream without ever having to know that soul-crushing sadness. And yet Undine shook me with her gentle hand and roused me—why?
She had a secret.
She had nestled flowers and the moon in her heart.
For the longest time I didn’t know that.
Nightfall/The Princess Speaks
I saw a god enraged.
The source of my grandfather’s anger was unknown to me.
Mitsukuni Himekura was supposed to be a man who governed information, a man who wielded his power and issued orders however he wished, an arrogant man in absolute control.
As far as I was concerned, my grandfather was a god who would allow no contradiction. He was well over halfway through his seventies, but there wasn’t the slightest hint that his physical or mental capacities had been compromised, and he gave off the impression that he had ruled the world since hundreds of years ago and that he would go on living into eternity.
Despite that, my grandfather’s face was twisted hideously with humiliation, his one eye grew red and bloodshot, and his shoulders shook with rage.
Feeding the koi fish at the edge of a pond on a moonlit night, my grandfather’s movements were violent and he looked as if he was venting his anger. Each time he cast a handful of food, the surface of the pond threw up rough waves that reflected the moonlight, and the koi fish that were my grandfather’s pride felt their master’s displeasure and twitched their red fins and swarmed away in suspicion.
I listened, holding my breath behind a pine tree, to the vengeful wail that spilled from his cracked lips.
“…That blasted Shirayuki…the promise…is still going?”
Shirayuki? And what promise?
Ignorant of it all, I felt something move deep in my chest like the dark surface of the water.
My grandfather fell into silence after that and continued throwing food to the fish. My skin prickling with tension, I left that place as silently as possible.
That happened during the summer when I was about to turn eighteen.
One night several days later, I turned eighteen and we held the kind of ostentatious party my grandfather loved on the grounds of the estate.
Most of the guests who’d come to the vast and garishly lit garden were company people much older than myself, and it was obvious that they had come not to celebrate my birthday, but to pay their respects to my grandfather. It was dismal keeping my smile in place and responding to the people I was meeting for the first time who told me, “Happy birthday,” so courteously. Because they could carry out their duty by being friendly to the little girl just once, but I had to act cordial and repeat, “Thank you,” over and over until the party ended.
And when a lot of people got together, I started to hear things I didn’t want to.
For example, how my mom had cast off her husband and child and gone back to her native England.
What it might mean for the Himekura family if the child of a woman like that took charge.
That Mitsukuni Himekura, who was obsessed with bloodlines, had made a fine bungle of things by approving the marriage of his only son to a woman of foreign ancestry and a common family, or that no, she was an evil woman who had duped the heir of the Himekuras by getting pregnant, then forcing the marriage. That they’d heard she had demanded alimony even though she was the one who’d left.
I mean, seriously, you get tired of hearing the same things for years on end.
But even if that’s what I’m thinking, I can’t show it on my face, and I have to pretend that I can’t hear what they’re saying. Putting on a lofty smile, untroubled, unshaken by anything, like the noble young lady of a good family. That’s what my grandfather and the people around me expect of me—Maki Himekura.
So I must clothe myself in a shiny silk dress and smile more beautifully and bewitchingly than anyone else here.
“Maki, I’ve heard that you’re the conductor of your high school’s orchestra.”
“Yes, at my grandfather’s request. It’s tradition for a member of the Himekura family to act as conductor in the orchestra.”
I responded just enough to avoid being rude, but I was fed up and bored.
The person in front of me right now, with a champagne glass in one hand and a polite smile on his face, was the son of the president of some financial group or other.
He was a third-year in college, three years older than me, a pampered son with the blood of an illustrious house and a family line older than the Himekuras even—the man my grandfather had selected as my future husband.
I don’t have any dreams about love. There’s no man I’m crazy about, and since marriage is nothing but a contract between men and women, I don’t care who it is as long as they abide by the conditions I set. A Don Juan who flits from woman to woman like Ryuto Sakurai is out of the question.
It’s just, whenever I wondered whether Grandpa chose the scion of an impeccable family tree because his grandchild has inferior blood, it made me feel so irritated that the pit of my stomach seemed to bubble and roil.
Whether my mother’s blood flowing in my veins was so intolerable to him—
Whether Himekura blood had to be blue and patrician—
Appearing unaware of my irritation, my grandfather was getting buttered up by the guests.
Seated in his chair, he was presiding over the gathering, as if flaunting that he was the person who stood at the apex of the grand Himekuras at this moment in time. No matter who came to greet him, he never stood up.
He wore a monocle over one of his eyes, the left one that had been damaged in a fire when he was young; the artificial lens glinted, but authority flashed like fire through his naked right eye. His face, too, though carved by wrinkles, was spilling over with power and purpose.
The woman hanging back beside my traditionally dressed grandfather was his secretary. I’d heard she was in her midthirties, but she looked younger. There were rumors that she was his lover, and I wonder if they’re true. Her short-cut black hair, her smart, natural makeup, and her unadorned pants suit matched my grandfather’s tastes. He hated women who wore heavy makeup and flashy dresses and called them low-class. He was probably prejudiced against the female sex itself.
“I don’t want to talk business with someone wearing a skirt.”
He would make that sort of bold proclamation, a person out of touch with his era. So the woman who worked closely with my grandfather had stopped wearing skirts, and her hair had gotten shorter almost naturally. Because if she wore fluttery clothes or painted her face in bright colors, it would put my grandfather in a bad mood.
I’ve always kept my hair long.
The hair I inherited from my half-Irish mother is as wavy as the sea, a translucent brown, and when the sun hits it, it’s wreathed in a golden shine.
When he sees my hair, my grandfather knits his eyebrows in apparent disgust.
It’s un-Japanese. It’s unrefined. Why not dye it black?
I let those comments wash over me so as not to upset Grandpa’s feelings too much, but I shake out my long hair more than ever in front of him. It was the sort of meager rebellion I could pull off.
A squat, middle-aged man approached my grandfather, all but groveling in front of him.
The guests murmured meanly.
“Well, well, if it isn’t the head of the Kusakabes.”
The Kusakabes are a related branch of the Himekuras, and until two generations before the current heads of the households, the Kusakabes had held sway. At the time, Grandpa had been young, and I’d learned that the head of the Kusakabes had worked as his chaperone. And yet now in their grandchildren’s generation, the Kusakabes had toppled completely and they clung to my grandfather’s aid to somehow preserve their family.
Kusakabe was known as my grandfather’s dog.
My father was the same way.
My father, who was overseas for business, had gone against my grandfather once to marry my mother, but after she was abused and chased out of the Himekura family by my grandfather, my father’s will to resist him was torn up by the roots. He no longer desired anything in life and refused to think for himself. Whether accepting himself as a vacant doll who moved its limbs according to my grandfather’s will had given him psychological peace or not, my father showed no strong emotion ever on his face, and he seemed dispirited. It was as if he were living his life dead.
I wonder if someday my grandfather will pull out my fangs, too, as he did to my father or to Kusakabe.
If I won’t even feel irritation and become a doll my grandfather controls to live bound head to toe in chains.
Just imagining myself like that, I felt a shudder go down my spine and the core of my brain got hot and trembled.
No way! I won’t turn out like my dad.
I won’t surrender everything the way he did. I don’t want to have my very soul be bound. That’s not living. Death would be better.
Fiery hot rage and loathing rose up in me at the fact that I’m a Himekura, at the fact that I’m his grandchild. The fire smoldered in my throat and my annoyance accelerated.
Being a Himekura is an inescapable fact.
The purplish birthmark peeking out from the collar of my grandfather’s kimono and the birthmark on the nape of my neck.
The mark, shaped like a fish scale and said to be proof that we’re descended from dragons, proved the link between my grandfather and myself to a suffocating degree.
The mark is wreathed in heat, as if a brand had been pressed against my skin.
I felt my face tensing with the screams I was holding back and the pain that jabbed my throat. Why did I have to smile at a time like this?
The hordes that amused themselves with self-involved gossip, the airheads who continued their carefree conversations right in front of me, knowing nothing of the world—they were all worthless. I wished every one of them would vanish right this second. Better yet, I wished a flood would swallow the world and destroy everything! If that happened, I would laugh. Loudly. With all my heart.
Just as the raging black water was beginning to inundate my heart, the lights in the garden cut out.
The gossiping stopped, and gasps were heard here and there.
The black wave pulled rapidly away from my heart.
Faint lights were shining in the garden.
Sweet little lights bobbing upward, exactly as if they had wafted up from the grass.
Lovely, glowing dots flared on the tips of the pine and maple branches, over the bridged pond, on the white tablecloths, on the hair and shoulders of the guests, and flickered with the brevity of life.
They weren’t real fireflies. It was a performance using lights made to look like them.
But the particles of pristine, palely winking light purified the gathering and transformed it into a limitless space, guiding us to a dreamy impression of standing in the midst of a cloud of real fireflies.
I stood frozen, entranced, and couldn’t help but remember the girl who had passed away only a month before.
The girl who had loved like a storm and who at the very end had given off a spectacular flash like lightning and passed away with a smile on her face.
I had watched her story all the way to her death. Something in my heart had idolized her, having in her breast emotions I would never possess. Though I was astounded by the inescapable resolution to her story, I couldn’t help admiring and envying the girl who had stood behind her feelings to the end.
The chainless soul that I still burned for, that I still sought.
That introverted, kind girl showed me what it was.
Even though she appeared to be tossed about by fate, to be a prisoner to love and hatred, to be constrained in every way, Hotaru’s soul had been free until the very end. She had shaken loose every restraint and taboo, had chosen the man she loved for herself, and had closed her eyes in his arms.
I don’t think she had any happiness beyond that. Every time I remember Hotaru, I think that.
If I’d asked her whether she regretted that, she would probably have given me a gossamer smile and nodded her head.
Hotaru had loved one man to the point that it destroyed her, had lived freely and had died freely.
Compared to that, I…
The irritation that had receded momentarily began to smolder again in my heart.
Though I’m called the Princess at the school where my grandfather serves as director and I’m given a lot of special treatment, the real me isn’t free at all.
What I do exercise is my grandfather’s power and not my own. Even though I wanted to paint pictures, I was forbidden to join the art club. In exchange for being given my own workroom at school, I was forced to promise that I would join the orchestra and be its conductor.
Even though things are so suffocating and unavoidable, my grandfather is the one person I can’t defy. With rage and despair that could have crushed my heart, I came to see firsthand what happened when my father raised the flag of rebellion against him.
So then would I be able to go on being a Himekura, obeying my grandfather’s will forever?
Without ever loving someone the way Hotaru had? Would I marry the man my grandfather chose, add the fetter of wifehood, and live my entire life as a Himekura?
I might be freed if my grandfather died. But when would that be? Ten years from now? Twenty? That seemed like an absurdly distant future to me right now, and that monster looked as though he could live another hundred years.
Would I spend my life as a doll under my grandfather’s command all that time?
The scream almost tore my throat apart.
The light of the false fireflies flickering in the warm darkness of summer crept to my innermost heart, creaked against the door I was holding shut, and tried to throw it open.
The impassive scion said that he was going to his villa in Nice next week and would I like to go with him? I felt such loathing at the poverty of intonation in his refined voice that my skin crawled.
I made the excuse that there were guests I still had to greet and broke away, fleeing him.
I moved immediately toward a deserted area.
The false fireflies shone faintly on my cheek, my shoulder.
The waves that continued trembling in my chest would not calm. I felt as if I’d been punched in the head, and the mark at the base of my neck throbbed with fire.
Hotaru—the real firefly—had moved away somewhere far out of my reach. I could never again see her kind, timid smile. I could never watch over her fierce passion.
I’m alone here.
I wondered if that Ryuto Sakurai, who had gotten so frustratingly entangled with Hotaru, was experiencing this feeling of loss, this agitation that seemed to have torn my heart in two.
I had taken Ryuto to a hospital under the thumb of the Himekuras when he’d been stabbed by Hotaru, and while we tried to keep him under control so they could treat him, Ryuto had wailed, “I gotta protect Hotaru. I promised her. Lemme outta here!” his face wild, like a rabid dog’s.
No, that three-timing, four-timing excuse for a man was probably just fine, chatting up some other girl right now. Because most importantly, he’s free. Unlike me.
I felt suffocated, as if a huge hand were clamping down on my chest.
I hated the idea of marrying a man my grandfather chose for me.
You think I would go to Nice? I want to be free now. I can’t wait so much as one more second.
But what can I do? Not as Mitsukuni Himekura’s granddaughter—just Maki Himekura?
I came to a stop, as if I’d been shot.
The moon floated in the pond, and my face was reflected as hardened as an ogre’s in the dark water.
This was where my grandfather had tossed food to the fish and let his anger flash.
Red fins wobbled at the bottom of the pond. I stared at them.
How long had I been standing here, frozen? A gentle voice that held intelligence called my name.
When I turned around, a tall man wearing a well-tailored suit was standing there. Takamizawa, my grandfather’s underling. He had been my grandfather’s secretary before, but now he filled the role of my chaperone and worked at the school.
“What’s the matter? Do you feel ill?”
“No. I wanted to be alone.”
“He won’t approve of the star of the party being absent.”
“I’ll go back soon,” I answered, collecting myself, though deep in my brain I was still thinking.
It had only been a short time since Takamizawa had become my chaperone. But I knew that he was an exceptional resource with calm amiability and levelheadedness.
Why had someone like him been let go from his role as my grandfather’s secretary and shuffled to school management? Even if he was the chaperone of the Himekura heir, I was still in high school and my father would still succeed my grandfather.
It would be a long time before I could become the head of the Himekura family, and if by some chance, my father or grandfather had a child and it was a boy… My grandfather was no big threat, but my father was still young, so it was entirely possible. If that happened, the leadership would probably pass to that child.
In reality, since my position was so precarious, Takamizawa was as good as a lady’s maid being assigned to me. How did he feel about that?
Even though he seemed unflappable, he might not be that way inside. In which case—
The mark on my neck that I shared with my grandfather stabbed me with heat again.
In order to become Elizabeth staring down the Spanish armada, I needed a Walsingham, a Cecil, a Drake.
Pushing back my confusion and fear, I turned to Takamizawa and donned a brave smile.
“I need to talk to you.”
Chapter 1—A Bad Person Abducted Me
I am myself but a tale of one line.
There was a man who told a companion that in a hovel by the water.
I’m tired of all the effort it takes to be a character in stories. If it absolutely couldn’t be avoided, I just wanted to be a supporting character in a tepid, peaceful story so I could continue with my matter-of-fact life.
I had expected the summer of my second year of high school to pass that way, in an easy haze.
But then, with half of August gone by, for some reason I was standing on a mountain road canopied by trees and lit by the sunset, with a perplexed look on my face.
“I can’t take the car any farther in, so I’ll need to ask you to go on alone.”
“It’s a straight road, so I don’t expect you’ll get lost.”
“Mr. Takamizawa, I’d like to…”
I mean, why did I have to get taken from Tokyo for hours in a car to the middle of the mountains in the northwestern countryside?
Takamizawa gently interrupted me from the driver’s seat of the limousine.
“When you get there, tell them that you’ve come from Tokyo and give your name and the name of your school.”
“Why do they need the name of my school?”
“Simply to amuse them. Then tell them this.”
The words Takamizawa produced were even more cloaked in mystery.
“Can you remember that? It’s very important, so tell them exactly that without any mistakes.”
“What’s so amusing about that? And anyway, why am I—”
“I’m sorry. I have to be getting back, so I need to excuse myself now. It gets very dark here at night, and it can be dangerous, so please don’t dawdle.”
Takamizawa smiled peaceably and then left.
With a travel bag stuffed with a change of clothes in one hand, I watched the limousine grow ever smaller, my face an utter blank.
I wanted to go home, but I didn’t know the way. Aside from the narrow road I now stood on, there were only trees and grass growing as far as I could see. I couldn’t spot a train station or a bus stop anywhere. The day was darkening rapidly, and the landscape was dyed the colors of twilight. Perhaps because I was in the mountains, the air was growing chilly as well.
Without any other options, I began walking down the unpaved dirt road.
“She is definitely going to hear about this.”
Sweat broke out on my fevered body.
The place I finally arrived at was a timeworn Western-style mansion that seemed as if it would fall into ruin at any moment, like the House of Usher in the Poe story.
It was the mystical hour when spirits walked the earth in the gloaming. The ridiculously huge sun tinged the light scarlet as it sank behind a Gothic building.
Unlike in Poe’s story, there were no cliffs or bogs around it, but shadowy trees like a flock of ghosts surrounded it and ivy crawled thick over its walls. There were carvings on the gate, and the building was darkly drab.
While sharply experiencing the unbearably melancholic emotions and absolute gloom of the soul that had assaulted the main character the instant he saw the House of Usher, I stood before the imposing iron gate and looked in at the yard through its bars.
I saw a tiny girl kneeling before a small stone shrine with her hands pressed together.
She might have been in her fifth or maybe sixth year of elementary school…?
Her hair was pulled into two ponytails, and she had a white apron on over her kimono. There was a maid’s white headband in her hair—was she working at this estate? A little girl like her? What year was this?
A stone shrine that seemed to hold a story behind it. A girl praying fervently with closed eyes, looking as though she had just escaped a turn-of-the-century café. I was caught up in a perilous, dreamlike sensation at the unusual scene rising up in the mistiness of twilight.
Just then, a black mass burst through the air with a whoosh and ran toward me.
The pure-black shepherd dog looked as if it had been cut out of the darkness. It thrust its nose through the bars and barked at me with incredible energy.
The girl lifted her face and looked at me, too.
Her eyes opened wide.
I remembered what Takamizawa had told me and hurried to introduce myself.
“Excuse me, I’m Konoha Inoue from Tokyo. I’m a second-year at Seijoh Academy. I came here because I heard there’s something I’m looking for here. Is the master of the house available?”
I saw surprise and fear come sharply over the girl’s face and I jumped.
She was looking at me as if I were a monster, and her lips were trembling slightly, as if she was fighting back how close she was to screaming.
The next instant, she turned her back on me and darted off like a wild rabbit, disappearing into the building in the blink of an eye.
I gripped the iron bars and craned forward.
Instantly the dog started barking at me—hwoof! hwoof!—and almost got his teeth in my leg. I leaped back in a panic.
Now what?! She must’ve thought I was an intruder. Even though all I said was what Takamizawa had told me to.
The dog was barking, his fangs bared. Why did these things happen to me?
As I was standing there, at a total loss, the door of the mansion burst open and Tohko flew out, wearing a fluttering white dress.
She came running at me, her eyes shining, through the bewitching light of sunset. She’d let down her hair, which was always up in braids, and tied it back with a white lace ribbon. Her black hair swayed around her thin shoulders, describing gentle ripples.
“You came, Konoha! I’ve been waiting for you!”
Out of breath, Tohko pressed both hands to the gate.
It opened with a clang!
The dog leaped at me as if it had gone completely insane.
“No, Baron! Konoha is a guest.”
Tohko yanked the dog away from me. He growled in dissatisfaction, low in his throat, and glared at me.
“I’m so happy! I knew you would come, Konoha.”
She grabbed my arm and dragged me to the front door excitedly. The smile she turned up at me was glowing and pretty, and what with her hairstyle and outfit, there was something of the young lady about her.
But I answered the bouncing book girl in my coldest tone.
“Someone came to my house to get me and brought me here by force.”
“What? What? You didn’t rush here after getting my telegram? And why are you acting so grumpy when we’re seeing each other after so long? Aren’t you happy to see the president you respect so much?”
She tugged repeatedly on my arm, as if making sure that of course you are! You could shout at the setting sun any second now you’re so moved by all this.
My look grew even more bitter.
“Oh yes, I got your telegram.”
A commemorative telegram for birthdays and anniversaries, with pressed flowers pasted onto it at that.
The August holiday of Obon was over, and summer break had been heading toward its latter half with a peaceful morning. I was in the air-conditioned living room of my house playing with my elementary school–aged little sister, just relaxing.
Ah, how peaceful things were without a club president always saying crazy things.
I was feeling that keenly as a voice—
“Mr. Inoooooue, telegraaaaam!”
—sounded at the front door.
My mother was busy with housework so I answered it for her. The telegram was decorated with a vivid pressed flower, and the name it showed was mine.
My birthday…was still a ways off.
The instant I opened it, despite my suspicion, I felt my head ache.
I’ve been abducted by a bad person.
Bring a week’s change of clothes and homework and come save me soon.
It made me light-headed, and I stumbled.
Tohko…what are you doing? Summer break is an important time for students taking their college exams.
And there’s no address so I don’t even know where you are. How am I supposed to go save you?
When I pointed that out…
“Oh? Really?” Tohko said in an offhand voice. “But if we have the bond of the book club, your spirit should have picked up on that much at least.”
“The book club isn’t a psychic fan club, so no, actually. Besides, even if there’d been an address, I would have ignored it.”
Tohko turned a disapproving eye on me that seemed to suggest I was an ungrateful, coldhearted snake.
Of course, she had just about no grounds to criticize me. If I’d gone to save her because I’d gotten a telegram with a pressed flower on it telling me to, that would be insane. Plus, thinking back over all the messes Tohko had gotten me involved in up till now, I knew that staying home to help my little sister learn homework techniques was the right choice.
So then why had I come to this fishy-looking mansion in the middle of the mountains carrying a travel bag, you might ask. Because twenty minutes after I received the telegram, a car came to pick me up.
It was hot enough to set off heat waves, but without even a drop of sweat, dressed to the nines in a well-tailored suit, Takamizawa had greeted my mother, saying, “I will take responsibility for your son. Allow me to take him into my charge,” with a truly serene and affable smile.
Totally won over, my mother said, “So my boy made friends with someone he can go visit and even stay the night!” and she packed a bag with my things and elatedly sent me off.
Unable to give much resistance, I was loaded into a sparkling limousine.
“Why do you always get me involved? Let me spend my summer break in peace at least.”
Tohko glared at me with tears in her eyes at my indignation.
“You’re awful! Awful! You’re the only underclassman I have in the book club, so what else can I do?”
She was right. There were no members in the Seijoh Academy book club but me and Tohko. In which case, it was bizarre that the club still existed. But no, the real problem was that Tohko had forced me to join the club, and I had come this far without quitting.
Just then Maki appeared.
Her long, gorgeous brown hair was tied back messily. She wore a pair of pants with a loose, shimmery shirt and over that a simple work apron. She was grinning.
“Come in, Konoha. Welcome.”
“Actually, this is kind of a problem.”
Maki Himekura, the granddaughter of the school’s director who was known as the Princess to the other students, let my sarcasm wash over her unnoticed and gave me an elaborate shrug of her shoulders.
“Oh. Well, Tohko was throwing a tantrum and said, ‘If you don’t bring Konoha here, I’m leaving!’ And how could I, who loves Tohko with all of my heart, ignore her demands?”
Tohko turned bright red and argued.
“If you love me, how can you abduct me and hold me prisoner? Or make me dress up in humiliating outfits every day while circling around, leering.”
“That’s the price for all the information I’ve funneled to you up till now. You said you would rather die than model nude, so I let you split up your payments and everything. Or are you going to pay me back in a lump sum now? If you just take off everything you’re wearing and stand still for a second, your balance will be zero before you know it.”
Tohko’s voice died in her throat as Maki put a taunting arm around her shoulder and drew her closer.
“We’ve still got today’s payment to do. I called Konoha for you, so focus on your work…”
“Eek! Maki, let go of me! Konoha, help!”
“All right, time to resign yourself to it. Oh, Sayo. Will you show Konoha to his room? He’s a very important guest, so be polite.”
Maki disappeared down a hallway, dragging Tohko with her, though she kept up her pointless struggle.
“…I can take your bag. Your room is this way, sir.”
A hand reached out from beside me and took hold of my bag.
It was the tiny maid I’d seen in the yard. She took my bag from me with a cold expression and walked off briskly.
“Uh, what about my shoes?”
“There’s no need to remove them.”
“I can carry my bag; don’t worry about it.”
“This is my job.”
Despite how young she looked, her speech was formal. Or more like, it sounded as if she disliked me.
I hunched up my shoulders and followed after her.
Inside, the house was old and dark, just like the outside. The ceiling was high, and there were stairs laid with red carpet in the front hall. While we were climbing, I suddenly felt eyes on me, and when I turned around, I met several gazes.
Probably the people who worked in the mansion. A mature man in a black butler’s suit, a middle-aged woman who looked like a housekeeper with an apron on over her kimono, an old man dressed in work clothes who looked like a gardener, and a young man wearing a chef’s jacket. The four of them were looking up at me from behind doors or the edges of hallways, as if wary of me.
When my steps came to a startled halt, they hurriedly bowed their heads and said, “Welcome” or “We look forward to having you with us.” Every one of them looked pale, and they were clearly tense.
Was there a reason for that?
Feeling unsettled, my spine thrumming, I was guided to a room on the second floor.
“You may use this room.”
She really was brusque. Her face stayed taut and she didn’t smile.
“Um, what’s your name?”
“Maki called you Sayo just now.”
“Sayo is my first name. Why do you ask?”
She turned cold eyes on me that all but asked, “What does my name have to do with you?”
“N-no reason. Have you always worked in this house?”
“It’s a part-time job during summer break.”
“I see. That’s pretty impressive for a little girl like you.”
“I’m in middle school. I’m not a little girl.”
“What? Middle school?! What year are you?”
I’d been convinced she was in elementary school!
But hey, wasn’t it weird for a first-year middle schooler to be working as a maid? This wasn’t the turn of the century. Maybe they just didn’t have enough people to do the work. Though as far as I’d seen in the hall, they had more people than they needed… Or maybe at the opulent villa of a family like the Himekuras, they needed that many servants.
“Uotani, was that you praying at that little shrine before?”
“…What of it?”
There were barbs in her voice.
“When you saw me, you were surprised, but why? And the other people were too.”
“…A student coming from Tokyo is unusual, that’s all. This is the country. I’m sure everyone would do the same.”
Was that really the reason? I wasn’t convinced. But Uotani turned her face sharply away.
“Please make yourself comfortable until dinner,” she said with a brusque whisper and left the room.
Uotani reminded me of my classmate Kotobuki. Something about the curt way she said things. In which case, maybe Uotani really did hate me.
As I was putting my luggage in order, thinking about things like that, Tohko came in on wobbly steps.
“Konohaaaa, I’m hungryyy,” she appealed to me, slumping and burying her face in the bed, like a camel that had collapsed in the desert. “Write me somethiiiiing, write it, write it, write iiiiiiit. Nooooow. I was just about to eat Manon Lescaut by the Abbé Prévost in the clubroom when Maki burst in out of nowhere and kidnapped meee.
“I dropped my book, so I couldn’t bring it with me. Ahhh, the love story of the sprite-like, capricious, adorable Manon and purehearted Chevalier Des Grieuuuuuuuuux…You get fed up with Manon’s devilishness, since she’s naturally unfaithful, but she’s so cute. And Des Grieux who does nothing but get jerked around by Manon is a real thoughtless idiot who stains his hands in crime without a second thought, but then you get caught up in the suspense and can’t put it down. You expect it to be the story of the lovers’ downfall, and it’s like sweet ripe figs sprinkled with so much whiskey it makes your tongue burn, then boiled up and served with bitter chocolate ice cream. The chewy flesh of the figs cloys to the tongue, and it’s sooo good it makes your head spin.
“So why, why, why did I let go of it? I’ve regretted it so much it’s even in my dreams. I tear up the pages and start to take a bite, but they get bigger and thicker like a canvas and I can’t tear them anymore.”
Tohko wept pitifully that all she had in her bag was Ogai Mori’s Takase River Boat, and she’d started eating it but now only about half of it was left, so she’d been staving off starvation since coming by eating carefully morning, noon, and night, and how she’d been in a mood to nibble on sidenotes, and she hurried me along as I sat on the bed, set my fifty-page notebook on my knee, and scribbled out with a thick mechanical pencil an improv story like the ones she always made me write in the clubroom.
So this was why she’d summoned me here.
Tohko was a goblin who ate stories.
She tore up the pages of books and crinkled through them as she expounded joyously on the stories.
She herself would insist, “I’m not a goblin! I’m just a book girl,” but however you thought about it, when she ate it was ghoulish.
“If you were that hungry, you should’ve written something to eat yourself,” I said coldly as my pencil moved. Tohko let out a pitiful sound, hugging her stomach and lying depleted beside me.
“Urgggggh… I wrote the scene of an epic battle between Captain Ahab and the sperm whale from Melville’s Moby Dick and ate that. But something was wrooooooong. I meant to bite into a whale steak, but the flavor was like shreds of whale meat bobbing in a boil-in-the-bag curry mix! That right there is sacrilege against Captain Ahab.”
“If what you wrote was the same as what he wrote, it should taste the same, right?”
“No! Even first-rate French cuisine is totally different when you partake of it in a restaurant playing classical music and the waiter brings it to you beautifully plated and when you eat it off of plastic wrap instead of a plate in a dingy apartment with a broken air conditioner.”
Her refusal to compromise about eating could be called a strength or simple selfishness.
What would she have done if I hadn’t come?
“Konoha, hurry…my stomach is collapsing in on itself.”
A gurgling noise from her stomach followed her feeble voice.
I pulled out one page I had just finished writing and held it out to her.
“I’m not done yet, but here. I picked some appropriate prompts before I started. You can’t complain, no matter what it tastes like.”
Tohko took it in both hands and promptly sat up on the bed. She read it voraciously, tearing off edges and taking bites.
She closed her eyes and whispered with a face totally at peace, then started in crinkling again dreamily.
“It’s like clam chowder with plenty of clams and bacon in it. It has the taste of sweet milk. A kidnapped girl makes friends with her kidnapper and goes to visit her estranged mother, right? And the two of them get on a hot-air balloon. Ahhhhh, I can feel it seeping into the walls of my stomach, so waaaaaarm…”
Well, five-alarm spices dumped onto an empty stomach would’ve been too harsh.
Even so, as I wrote the second page, I murmured matter-of-factly, “That’s because the prompts are ‘kidnapping,’ ‘hot-air balloon’…and ‘destruction.’”
The piece of paper Tohko had been trying to swallow caught in her throat, and she started coughing.
“No! Konoha, why would you go and make this fantastic soup spicy or bitter?! I like it the way it is.”
I ignored her, beginning to tremble in terror at the thought of whatever horrible flavor it was going to transform into and kept on writing briskly.
In fact, there was going to be a sickly sweet resolution where the evil spirit of the criminal who’d plotted to make money with the kidnapping was destroyed, but I wanted Tohko to get a fit retribution for summoning me into the mountains out of the blue.
I saw her eyebrows knit together, and she shook with fear, which made me feel a little better.
The suspicious behavior of the household bothered me, but if I prodded at it ineptly and Tohko stuck her nose into something strange again, it would just come back to bite me, so I’d stay quiet.
The next day, Tohko was engulfed in a huge amount of lace, like a French doll.
Her hair was loose again and hanging down her back.
There was lace at her collar, lace on her sleeves, lace on her skirt, and even the bonnet on her head was frills and lace all over.
“See that, Tohko? Konoha’s here now, so try to be a little nicer.”
From behind the canvas, Maki admonished Tohko, who was hugging the back of a chair and sulking.
I had been at the window listening to their conversation, disgusted.
“The hat is too heavy. It’s giving me a headache. And the corset is laced too tight.”
“Then why don’t we have Konoha loosen the laces on your back? And really, I wouldn’t mind if you went from there and took it all off.”
“Wh-what are you suggesting?! I’m a modest and virtuous book girl, unlike you.”
“My, my. And which book girl was it who decided to show up in a slip in front of Konoha?”
She brought up how Tohko had stripped right down to the limit before in exchange for information, and she grinned.
“I was surprised actually. I wondered if you’d purposely brought Konoha along because you wanted to show him how flat your chest was.”
It was true…covered in her bra and slip, Tohko’s chest had been pitifully flat.
“M-my chest doesn’t have anything to do with it! Just because you’re a little bit bigger, don’t get a big head about it. And the reason I had Konoha there was because I didn’t know what you would do once I took my clothes off if I was alone with you!”
“True. If it had just been the two of us, I might have lost all reason and attacked you.”
“There! You’ve revealed your true intentions! I’m serious. I’m normal! I’m not going to reveal my naked body to someone who looks at me so creepily.”
“Oh no. I should have kept my intentions hidden and then made my advances on you.”
“Impossible. Your eyes have been hounding me ever since you first spotted me at the welcoming ceremony at school.”
“That’s because I fell in love with you at first sight. Ah, I thought, I wish I could get her uniform off and draw every detail of her in her natural state.”
“Any high school girl who thinks like that first thing is messed up! It’s not demure! It’s not love. It’s weird! It’s perverse!”
My head started to hurt and I stood up.
“Konoha, where are you going? Stay.”
“This has nothing to do with me.”
If I kept listening to them talk, it would probably warp my view of women.
Excerpted from Book Girl and the Undine Who Bore a Moonflower by Mizuki Nomura Copyright © 2013 by Mizuki Nomura. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.