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My bottom, which has taken the hit, throbs, my back feels numb, and my head feels like it’s splitting… But despite the plethora of pains I’m assaulted by, the thing causing me the greatest discomfort is my hair, which is loose and frayed.
As I fell, my hair was caught between the ground and my body, and when I made to get up, it felt like every hair on my head was being pulled out. I want a haircut. But it’s hard to find a reason to cut this hair, which has grown long for no reason.
I spout a stream of the most mundane of curses, such as “Sheesh,” “Honestly,” and “Seriously” as I smooth down my frazzled hair. My mouth is basically running off my spine right now.
And just when I finally get my hair back in order and my joints stop aching, my head begins to spin.
What’s this now?
Where am I, and who am I, for that matter?
Ooh, I seem to have a mild case of amnesia.
Well, I’m “me”, but enough about all that, in front of me… Is a very familiar-looking circular building.
I know the name of this building. It’s the Camphorwood Cultural Center.
The heck, I’m at the office.
“My vision is blurry…”
Everything I see has a blurred outline.
Obviously, the world isn’t what’s messed up; it’s me. I probably had a light concussion.
Let’s head inside the office for now.
I ascend the spiral staircase with my breath ragged after paying my respects to the perennially deserted reception desk. Even the clacking of my shoes seems to overlap for some reason.
Maybe my ears are out of wack, or maybe there’s still something wrong with my brain.
On the third floor. Ahead is a familiar office door. The door is emblazoned with a simple “United Nations Mediation Council”, and as I grasp its knob, so does a different person’s hand.
I look up to ascertain the arm’s owner, and find myself there.
From a face I’ve seen often in the mirror comes an elegant, bell-like voice – different from my own, which I’ve only heard through my skull – saying the words “… No way.”
I am overcome by a strong wave of dizziness when I realize this is my own voice.
I think I’m about to scream.
But by the time I regain my composure, the other me, an unreal being, is gone. The relief and embarrassment I feel right after waking up from this nightmare, combined with the scream lurking at the base of my tongue, leaves behind a bitter aftertaste. I suppose this is what neurotransmitters taste like.
“… That’s right… My wristwatch was…”
My memory is returning.
As I reach for the doorknob again, I spy a dog sitting in the darkness at the far end of the third-floor hallway.
“I feel like I’ve seen that dog before…”
It’s a decrepit building, so it wouldn’t be strange for a dog to wander in.
What should I do? Should I approach or ignore the dog? I don’t know why, but I can’t help but want to approach it.
While I’m vacillating, the dog barks and wanders off.
I turn back to the door in relief and twist its knob, which I still hold.
Grandfather’s in the office, as he usually is.
When I say, “My watch broke, so I want a new one,” he immediately makes a sour face; it’s clear how much he hates the idea of relinquishing even a single one of his watch collection.
But in the end, he can’t say no to such a lovely grandchild as me, so he leaves to find a suitable piece for me. However…
“I can’t find it. I had one that would’ve been just right for you,” says Grandfather. Right after, his eyes light upon my wrist, and his expression turns frigid.
“…Hey, now, why’s that on your wrist?”
I lift my wrist, only to find strapped onto it a timepiece that is both familiar and unfamiliar to me.
An arm sundial. That’s what it’s called.
“When did you take it out?”
Did I take it?
No, Grandfather gave me this arm sundial, didn’t he… Huh?
“Huh? What in the… How strange!”
“Don’t tell me you have no memory of taking it.”
“I really don’t!”
“As if! What are you pulling, filching the very thing I was thinking of giving you?!”
Even if the explanation is that I was sleepwalking or something, it just doesn’t make sense that I managed to steal this sundial when I remember receiving it.
I suppress my irritation and try to explain.
“… First off, even if I did steal from your collection, Grandfather, I’d have stolen a nice mechanical watch, not a worthless one like this. And if I were to steal something, I wouldn’t be so careless about it, either!”
My claim about my sincere attitude toward theft appears to have convinced Grandfather.
That kind of hurts.
But now it’s Grandfather’s turn to be confused.
“Then when did I give you this?”
“Doesn’t it feel like… it was just a short while ago?”
We look at each other and groan.
“… It’s complete chaos, huh. Well, whatever. Take it. It’s yours, both in name and reality.”
“Ah, no, that’s why I want something that can actually tell the time. I’d like to return this shady item.”
Naturally, the return is rejected.
And to add insult to injury, I am forced to sit through an explanation of how this thing is a keepsake from Grandfather’s first love or something, an utter waste of my time.
Anyhow, the fact remains that I must set out to pick up the assistant, so I make my way to the meeting place once more with an arm sundial I have no idea how to read strapped to my wrist.
… Speaking of, what actually is the time now?
It’s a twenty-minute walk from the office to the village square.
Beneath the sign showing a sheep with a fruit-laden branch in its mouth is a burly man who seems like he’s waiting for me, but I get the feeling he isn’t.
As I calmly survey the area, I notice a couple arguing a little ways away from the sign.
They’re both young.
I’m almost certain the woman in the doctor’s gown is in her late twenties, but I can’t quite make out the man’s age.
And what a peculiar man he is.
He isn’t the type to attract attention. In fact, he’s the complete opposite. He looks so lifeless that he doesn’t even leave an impression unless I actively try to be conscious of him.
The phrase “to disappear into thin air” often indicates something has disappeared, but this youth practically is air.
His age, his features, and even his clothes, vague is all they are.
Even though I’ve burned his appearance into my eyes, I feel like I wouldn’t be able to remember his face if I were to do so much as blink.
How should I put it…? He’s uncertain.
Moved by a premonition, I call out to them; I’ve hit the jackpot.
“I’m a doctor staying in this village. I’m also the one who examined him… Oh, but that aside, you came at just the right time! He was about to start wandering again. I was this close to losing him.”
“Yes. He’s usually obedient, but he tends to wander about, aimlessly. And he sometimes gets very far, too.”
What I thought was an argument turns out to be merely the scene of the doctor preventing the assistant from escaping to go on one of his wanderings.
“As I said, he- he’s usually- obedient, but… Help me!”
I jump at the assistant’s free arm, across from the one the doctor is holding.
But since I haven’t much experience in violence, I can only clumsily wrap both arms around his to keep him down.
“Okay, that’ll do!”
I don’t know what’s going on anymore.
With both his arms arrested, the assistant falls to his knees like a child throwing a tantrum while his parents try to leave. He twists his body in every direction and scrabbles about with his feet in a bid to escape.
“He’ll calm down soon, so can you hold on until then?”
My brain is yet to catch up to all this, so I can only give a half-hearted reply.
“Anyway, you mind keeping me company till he does?”
She must be very used to this kind of thing. She’s completely unfazed.
In fact, she looks like she’s having fun.
Now that I look at her again, she’s got him in a perfect armlock. She’s used to this. An expert. What, apart from medicine, could have prompted her to train her skills in violence to this extent, I wonder. I’m glad I didn’t become a doctor.
“Ahh, didja know how I came across my first love?”
Why must I suffer listening to this hot blondie doctor talk about her first romance while she’s got somebody I’ve never met in an armlock?
“Um, more importantly… I’d like to know more about the assistant.”
“Is that so? Guess I’ll have to tell you all about him.”
I pat my chest in relief, having effected a successful course correction.
“First… Are you aware that he’s had an unusual upbringing?”
“Yes. But that’s all I know.”
“When he was discovered, he’d been alone. He couldn’t speak, and he didn’t have any family or friends… Surprisingly, he didn’t even have anything to eat.”
“… No food?”
“He was the last surviving member of his community, you see. He and his family…”
Let me summarize the story for you.
His was a group who had eschewed the benefits of civilization and opted to live off the land instead.
They hadn’t been able to settle into an agrarian lifestyle. Instead, they became nomads.
That had worked for a few generations.
Although their standard of living had fallen, their lives were stable.
Likely, the wisdom inherited from scientific civilization, once at its peak, had been useful even when living such a primitive life.
They could probably gather food, keep livestock, cook, weave textiles, and even partake in rudimentary agriculture.
The former sprawling glory of humanity has now been reduced to that of the small lessons of life.
The world changes with each passing generation.
For children who’ve been cut off from scientific knowledge, the wisdom and products of science are ritualistic, not logical.
They end up believing such things to be valuable gifts created by their ancestors from the condensed essence of all creation.
For example, an industrial knife, kept as an heirloom.
We can’t reproduce them now, of course. Where in the world did this mysterious instrument come from? From heaven? The earth? Fire? Water? God? The Devil?
Ohhh, this cola bottle here’s such a wondrous thing! You can tan hides with it, use it to store water, or blow it like a flute; how convenient it is, do let’s keep it as a sacred treasure! Ah, but life’s a little too easy with this thing around, so maybe we should just give it back to the Gods1.
The debt of knowledge has continued to accumulate.
Much of science is now relegated to obscurity in the name of refinement.
We’ve forgotten molecular biology, abandoned engineering, lost geography (By accidentally tossing it into the fire… I mean, how many maps would one ever need to carry on a journey anyway? Surely not more than that one bit they actually need), perhaps epidemiology is still around due to its utility, and chemistry might have survived quietly through its integration with our way of life… But we had no place for physics, metaphysics, informatics, mathematics, and other similar fields. Even astronomy didn’t survive for more than a few generations, save for knowing how to read the stars.
Thus, the group’s quality of life began declining.
But even so, this pastoral tribe still had a leg up on their distant ancestors, who had been forced to exercise their ingenuity through trials and tribulations.
Compared to the agrarians of yore, the one thing they lacked was trade.
It’s easy to imagine that for this group who escaped the confines of society for whatever reason, contact with other humans would have been considered taboo. As a result, they lost the most essential vitamin of the nomads, trade.
When you don’t keep your vitamins topped up, your skin loses its luster in a jiffy.
They couldn’t obtain good knives. Not even simple tools. And this mattered all the more in the middle of the isolated highlands. They only had meat, fur, milk, wild grass, bones, and skins.
The bits of civilization that could be preserved by these meager tools inched on, but everything else was lost.
The Mongolian Empire can never be expected to return to its former glory ever again.
Old humanity has lost too much energy to allow for an encore of that spectacle.
All their comrades died, only one family remained – his – and finally, even his parents died.
He was left alone as a baby.
There was no one to teach him words or protect him… It was all he could do to survive on fruit and wild herbs.
He barely even knew what it meant to “live,” so he had a lot of time on his hands.
He was curious about who he was but knew no words to help elucidate such a thought.
He had gazed up at the sky, stared into the horizon, and thought about the breadth of the world. And perhaps, he might have met the occasional passing fairy.
He continued to think using only pure emotions, and then-
He was adopted.
“… and that’s the gist of it. But really, this was all just a set of conjectures your grandfather made.”
I’m ashamed of how leery I’d been about meeting him now.
I feel strongly that he needs all the help he can get.
“I hope I didn’t make you sad. I’m sorry. It’s just, he’s become quite emotional now. He used to be more… empty… before.”
Yet another strange descriptor.
“That’s right. He didn’t have a name when we first met.”
“I see. So you feel he was “empty” because he didn’t even have a name?”
“No. That’s not what I meant. I don’t know how to explain it… I used to call him ‘Nu’ at first. Nu for Numerical.”
“… As in, something quantifiable.”
I repeat what I just heard.
“I can define him numerically. He definitely does exist, at least based on data including his height, weight, blood type, heart rate, blood pressure, and many other bits of information. I was the one who recorded them, so there’s no doubt about it. But he tends to slip out of my consciousness and memories as soon as I take my eyes off him. It’s like I’m forced to forget about him.”
I stand still, unable to even express my feelings on the matter.
“It’s true. Oh, you don’t have to believe me. It’s just, your grandfather was very interested in the whole thing… so I thought you might be too…”
“Can’t this all be explained simply based on your forgetfulness?”
She smiles awkwardly at my accusation.
“… I admit my memory isn’t the best. But that’s not what is happening here. You wouldn’t be able to maintain your memories of him as a whole. But it’s possible to ascertain his existence through numbers. If you look at the records, it’s obvious that he exists. But the impression he leaves… The memory of his face, voice, and physique, nothing sticks when you look away. It’s like he’s altogether formless.”
The word suddenly pops into my head.
“…No way.” I shake the thought off. “Surely he just has a weak personality?”
“Weak is a mild word. He’s an absolute blank slate. People remember each other through their individuality, you know? But if the strength of a person’s lack of individualism is too strong, no one would be able to remember them. That’s how the world works, I’m sure of it.”
As I ponder this conundrum, I cover my mouth with both hands (By force of habit when I feel helpless). It feels like there are many flaws in her argument, but I’m still left with a vague feeling of insecurity.
Unsure of what she wants, I give both my hands a once-over.
“You let go…”
The doctor has nothing in her hands, either.
“Wh-What about him? Where’s Nu?”
Naturally, the assistant’s long since made like a tree.
We ask around in the village, but nobody there has any memory of such a person.
The complete lack of eyewitnesses forces us to continue the search ourselves, as if to make good on Miss Sexy Doctor’s reckless words.
We decide on the spot; I am to head down the path to the office, searching the pastures to the left and right of the path as I do. Meanwhile, the doctor heads back to the village.
She’d told me the assistant had a penchant for vagrancy.
And furthermore, he apparently tended to cover quite large distances.
If he’s still in the plains, there’s a chance we can find him, but if he’s gone to the ruins or into the forest, we’re flat out of luck.
I dash down the road, quickly run out of breath, stop, lose my patience, break into a jog, and then fall to my knees once more… rinse and repeat.
It had always been my intention to return to the office and report everything to Grandfather.
We need the help of a seasoned veteran.
“… I wonder why… I’m strangely hungry…”
Is it because I’m exerting myself a lot more than I usually do?
I feel like my body has run out of gas. I don’t know what to do.
There’s a fairy standing on the stone wall.
Ahh, but I haven’t the time to deal with it right now… Let’s just make light conversation with it until I’ve caught my breath instead.
“Yes, yes, what is it?”
The fairy holds out a banana it’s been carrying to me.
“Here, an offering~”
A small banana.
“Hey, where’d you get this? Bananas are really rare.”
The fairy stays silent as if it didn’t hear me.
Ah well, these guys probably did who-knows-what and found a banana or two.
Come to think of it, I’ve heard that bananas are highly digestible and score perfectly on the energy scale as well.
I’m grateful for the timely gift.
“Bananas seem like something you eat when you’re sick. I wish I had more; I’d be able to make all sorts of things with bananas…”
And so I eat~
“What do you think?”
I savor its unique, deliciously melty mouthfeel.
“We’ll go with that from now on, then~”
“What do you mean by that?”
What is this feeling?
This exchange has left me with a strong sense of déjà vu.
“… Umm, what was I trying to do again?”
“Are you trying to figure out the meaning of life?”
“No, nothing so profound as that…”
“Planning to do some soul-searching?”
“While we’re at it-”
While we’re at what now?
As the sound of hooves echoes from somewhere, the fairy lets out a disappointed “…ahhh” and falls like a rag doll over the other side of the wall.
I really don’t like how the fairy falling like its strings were cut looks so much like as if it just died.
This is how they are; they appear unexpectedly and disappear like fog. The tools they make also share the same properties.
Fairy-made tools don’t last for long. Even if you were to keep one safely locked away, it would disappear before you knew it. These tools seem to have a disappearing feature built-in to them.
To wit, it is not wrong to say fairy tools as a whole can be described with phrases such as “More than meets the eye” or “Believe it or not.” In truth, fairy tools look quite ordinary, though they may have unimaginable effects hidden under the surface.
Which is why I’m struck by the thought of this banana peel magically disappearing…
This is a reference to an old movie called “The Gods Must be Crazy,” about a tribesman in the Kalahari Desert who goes on a journey to throw away a discarded Coca-cola bottle that’s caused many problems for his tribe. It’s been criticised for its infantilization of native African people, but the humor is genuinely amazing. I highly recommend it and its (slightly weaker) sequel too. ↩︎