Sleeping Scholar of the Forest
The summoning ring of the telephone echoed through the room.
To Shuuji Shiraishi’s1 dulled mind, the noise sounded like it was coming from somewhere far away.
Which would be why he didn’t react.
But when his answering machine switched on, and the mechanical message began in a woman’s voice, he was finally pulled back to reality.
‘This is Mori from Takara Publishing.
Thanks for all your help.’
Mori must have figured he wasn’t home, and started to leave a message, and it was Shuuji’s body, rather than his mind, that reacted to her voice.
He picked up the receiver.
This is Shiraishi.”
“Ah, you are home.
Were you asleep?” Mori asked in a good humored tone.
“No, I wasn’t asleep.”
I wanted to talk about your next job.”
With Mori, even small talk moved quickly on to work topics.
Shuuji was a book designer, and Mori was the editor-in-charge at one of his publisher clients.
Shuuji had been with Mori since just about the time he’d started in this line of work, and it was no exaggeration to say that she was the one who’d made him into a one-stop book designer.
That was why, even though it’d been six years since he’d become a designer, he still couldn’t say no to Mori.
“That front cover the other day went over really well, Shiraishi, did you hear?”
Mori launched into the conversation all on her own, but she must have noticed Shuuji’s lack of response, and asked her question to double check.
“Sorry, my head isn’t really working…” Shuuji answered honestly.
Usually, his mind switched over the second he started talking to Mori, but today, although he could hear Mori’s voice, none of what she was actually saying was making it into his brain.
“‘Is something wrong?” Mori asked.
Shuuji’s mumbling and his weird tone of voice must have made her wonder if he wasn’t feeling well.
“Uh, yeah, yes, I do have a bit of a fever.”
He hadn’t even checked his temperature, but he couldn’t tell her the real reason, so he went along with her suspicions.
“So you weren’t sleeping, you were just staring off into space, huh.
Maybe we should leave shop talk for next time then.”
“If you wouldn’t mind, that would help.”
I’m not in any rush myself, so how about Wednesday, two days from now?” she asked, and Shuuji’s eyes reflexively found his wall calendar.
Shuuji knew it was the fourteenth day of the month, but he had no clue what the Wednesday two days from now would be.
“Today… What day is it?”
“You don’t even know what day it is? You are sick, huh,” Mori said, dumbstruck.
“Today’s the fourteenth of July, so two days from now will be the sixteenth,” she told him, in easy to digest specifics.
That’s fine then.”
Having been told the date in concrete terms, Shuuji’s dazed mind finally came to grips with it.
“For today, you get some rest, and get better quickly please.”
He apologized one final time, and the phone call ended.
Shuuji’s gaze stayed on the calendar the whole time.
If today was the fourteenth, that meant it had been exactly one week since Koutarou Seno,2 the man Shuuji had been dating for six years, had disappeared, gone right out from under him.
Seeing Koutarou off to work last week Monday morning was the last time they’d been together.
Koutarou had been driving to his job when an oncoming car going over the speed limit had crossed the center line and crashed into him.
He’d been unconscious for two days, and on the morning of the third day he’d passed away, having never woken up.
Maybe because he wasn’t able to be there when Koutarou had died, it felt utterly unreal.
He hardly remembered this past week at all, and he’d even started to feel like everything had happened in a dream.
But Koutarou was gone, that was reality.
They saw each other basically every day, and when they couldn’t meet, they’d check up on each other with phone calls, but neither of those things had happened in a week now.
He couldn’t help but notice it, even if he didn’t want to.
The fact that they were always together was so natural, he never imagined there would come a day when Koutarou wouldn’t be there.
What was he supposed to do now? The whole idea had never even crossed his mind.
He only ever thought about the good times.
But he’d been dragged out of that dream and back to reality, and a deep sense of loss stole over him.
He’d cried so much he’d practically shriveled up, but his tears flowed again.
Days like this scraped the meat off of Shuuji’s frame, which was only 170 cm and maybe 50 kilos to begin with.
The lines of Shuuji’s body had always given a delicate impression, but in the past week, he’d become increasingly ephemeral.
He was a bit plain, but actually his face was quite nice, and it was in those features that the unhappiness that now enshrouded him was plain to see.
Shuuji’s apartment was a studio in an upscale building, and once he’d put a work desk and a bed in there, there was no more room for a sofa.
Whenever Koutarou came over, they’d always lean up against the bed and sit next to each other on the floor.
There was plenty of space for Shuuji, with his small frame, but it was probably a bit tiny for Koutarou, who was 180 cm, although he always seemed to be enjoying himself.
When they met, it was always in each other’s apartments.
Then three years ago, they’d added one more place, a research lab and vacation home Koutarou had purchased on the edge of town.
They spent just about every weekend there, and that last time he’d seen Koutarou off, it had been in that house.
“That house… What’s going to happen to it?”
A question he never intended to ask anyone slipped from his mouth.
Shuuji was the only person who knew Koutarou had bought the thing, aside from the businessman who’d acted as an intermediary.
The fact that he’d been able to buy the house – which had run into the several millions of yen 3, including renovation costs – in one lump sum at only twenty seven was proof that Koutarou’s company had treated him extraordinarily well.
He was such an excellent researcher he’d gotten numerous invitations from universities and corporations both within Japan and overseas.
But Koutarou had wanted to create a place where he could do whatever research he wanted, and where Shuuji would always be by his side.
His research at the company had gotten to the point where he’d started spending the night there, and he wasn’t able to meet with Shuuji anymore. So I figured I might as well make my own lab, Koutarou had said with a smile.
There was no one to get in the way in that house, and the place was like paradise as far as the two of them were concerned.
He had more memories with Koutarou there than he did even in this room… The instant he realized that, he got the urge to see it again, just one last time.
He started dressing so quickly, his earlier lethargy seemed like a total lie.
– – –
The vacation house was in Okutama,4 about a two hour drive from the heart of Tokyo.
Before, Koutarou would pick him up in the car on Friday night, and then drop him off at his apartment on the way to work Monday morning.
But that day last week, Shuuji had stayed behind in the vacation house.
He’d been working on some stuff with a looming deadline that morning, and he wasn’t going to finish it in time if he left with Koutarou.
If that day had been like normal, if he’d been able to finish his work a little faster, maybe Koutarou wouldn’t have gotten in that accident.
Shuuji’s regrets pained him.
Shuuji had a license, but he didn’t own a car, so first he stopped to rent one, and then he headed for Koutarou’s condo on his own.
He knew Koutarou wouldn’t be there, of course, but he wanted to see that place too, one last time.
He arrived at the condo, and parked the car on the street.
He’d intended only to look from the car window, but when he saw the building, his body naturally got out of the car.
“Hey, you must be Seno’s friend, right?”
At the unexpected question, Shuuji turned in surprise.
A man he thought he’d seen somewhere before was standing behind him.
“You don’t remember, huh.
We actually met once before, right here as a matter of fact.”
“From the same lab as Koutarou…”
He remembered that much at least, after being given a hint, but he still didn’t really know the man.
Koutarou hadn’t introduced them that day, and he’d only told Shuuji they were from the same lab because Shuuji had asked him about it afterwards.
The company Koutarou had been working for rented out whole floors of this building to use as company housing.
This man lived here too, he’d heard, so it wasn’t surprising they would meet.
“What are you doing here today? You know about Seno, right?”
“Yes…” Shuuji answered, with no strength in his voice, and weighed his excuses in his head.
Saying that he’d just been passing by was unnatural, but neither did he have any reason to be dropping by an apartment that didn’t have an owner anymore.
“I was wondering what to do with some things I borrowed…”
“And your feet just brought you here, huh.”
Shuuji’d made up the story on a spur of the moment
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