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(the falling snow)
In October, Kaimeisei Middle School had the midterm exams for the second term. Once again, Taichi, three points from full marks, failed to overcome Hirai. Hirai was one point from full marks as well. Apparently he had made a careless mistake.
Taichi had lost the will to fight with Hirai. He was aiming for full marks. If he got full marks, the result would come automatically.
The day after the marks were posted, they had a classical literature lecture. At some point, Taichi had started to look forward to Fujiwara-sensei’s eloquence.
‘Today, we will analyse the first episode – that is, the very beginning – of Ise Monogatari. The story begins with the protagonist just having had his genpuku – a coming-of-age-ceremony – and goes to his death. At each stage, the situation is explained through waka and we see the flow of the whole story, with other characters’ stories weaved in as well.’
Then, to explain why he hadn’t explained the very beginning until now, Fujiwara-sensei turned serious.
'When the young protagonist was going falconing, he tried to hit on a pair of beautiful sisters that he spotted. I thought that the story was too soon for you students, even if you’re the same age. I think the time is about right now.’
Sensei glanced up at them, which made the students on the inclined seats laugh.
'The contents of this episode are a story of a poem that was read instead of a pickup line and the older poem that was received in response. This is that old poem.’
Fujiwara-sensei took a karuta – a Hyakunin Isshu box out of his bag. He took off the cover and read the card on top.
'The card is “michinoku no” (Whose fault is it). The rest is… Mashima-kun?’
After Fujiwara-sensei said Taichi’s name, he covered the yomifuda. Me again? That was Taichi’s thought as he responded:
tare yue ni
midare some ni
ware naranaku ni”’
(that my feelings have begun to tangle
like the tangle-patterned prints
of Shinobu from the distant north?
Since it is not mine, it must be…)
He had left karuta for two months, but still, every day, some impetus would bring the kimariji to his mouth – every time he saw a line of hiragana that was the same, every time they reached his ears.
(Even if I try to forget, I can’t. Though it’s not like I have to forget…)
'Bravo, that’s correct. A beautiful young man, a lady-killer… Now, you might call him a hunk. The character that has held the position of Japan’s most good-looking guy for a thousand years, Hikaru Genji – this poem is by the person who was the model for him, Minamoto no Tooru, a noble from the early Heian period. However, Minamoto no Tooru was only three years older than Narihira, so the setting with Narihira using this poem might be a bit contrived. Now, a few people chosen for the Hyakunin Isshu and related to it have appeared n Ise Monogatari. Yes, this one and this one.’
Fujiwara-sensei held up the 'chihayaburu’ and the 'tachiwakare’ cares.
'The protagonist Narihira and his older brother Yukihira. Also “tsukuba ne no”. Emperor Youzei was the author, and his mother, Nijou no Kisaki. She appears in the Ise Monogatari. She lived in the ninth century.’
Fujiwara-sensei looked at the students. His eyes glinted behind his glasses as he smirked.
'After this, let’s move to the tea ceremony room. If any of you win against me, I’ll mark your second report more easily. If you lose, I’ll be tougher.’
Eeeeh!? The students voiced their feelings all at once. However, it appeared that some students had heard from their older brothers or upperclassmen that this was Fujiwara-sensei’s custom, so there were some 'Ah, it’s come’ responses too.
'What kind of match is it?’ somebody asked.
Sensei held the Hyakunin Isshu box up high.
After they moved to the tatami room which was used for tea ceremonies, Fujiwara-sensei asked once more to the students sitting in a corner of the room, 'Then, who will try to win against me?’
Taichi was hesitant. He didn’t know how skilled Fujiwara-sensei was. Though he wouldn’t mind doing it if Sensei would mark their reports more easily… With everyone’s reports riding on this, the feeling of responsibility was heavy.
'Oh, nobody? Nobody wants me to mark his report more easily then? I’ll choose somebody… how about you, Hirai-kun?’
A few cold glances went towards the Hirai. Hirai, who could do anything and never lost to anyone, might enjoy losing here, but then Fujiwara-sensei would be tougher when marking their reports.
'Me…? OK, I’ll try,’ he said hesitantly. Because Hirai was such a curious person, he probably couldn’t refuse. Plus, Hirai probably wouldn’t have to worry about the report being marked a bit more toughly.
(In a good way and bad, Hirai’s dense.)
Hirai went up to the front. Taichi watched him, heart pounding.
'We’ll play a genpeisen. Hirai-kun and I will each place fifty cards in front of us – ’
Fujiwara-sensei was quick to take the karuta. As the CD player read the poems, he used the kimariji to take the cards before the first half of the poem was finished being read. Hirai had no way of winning – though it seemed he had memorized some poems, he didn’t know the kimariji.
(What, I could take cards faster than that. I should’ve raised my hand.)
Taichi felt irritated. After Sensei had taken about twenty cards in a row, some of the students started booing. This seemed to be a custom as well.
'Sensei, you’re too strong.’
'Sensei, you’d definitely win unless you were play one against five or so.’
Fujiwara-sensei was smirking.
'That so? Then somebody who thinks they can…’
'I’ll do it!’
Taichi raised his hand right away.
Five people including Taichi switched with Hirai, so Fujiwara-sensei continued to play, one against five.
Then – nobody could beat Taichi. Of course, Sensei was included. Since Taichi took the cards right as the kimariji were read, the other four and the watching students were gaping. After Taichi took ten cards in a row, the four students had stopped trying to reach, so it was just between Sensei and Taichi.
Taichi was engrossed. When he protected his ooyamafuda <kimi ga tame wo> with his hand, he felt like he could hear Sensei’s sigh, but that was all… He couldn’t hear the other students stirring. He was just focussed on the reader’s voice coming from the CD player.
The instant the breath of the first sound of the kimariji reached is ear, his arm moved instinctively. This pleasant feeling. When he swept his hand, the cards leapt up. When they cut through the air, it was thrilling.
After Taichi took ten a row, he took the remaining seventy as well. Sensei was unable to take even one. It was Taichi’s overwhelming win.
(I won! Yeah, this is great, it’s so fun… Karuta’s so fun!)
'Mashima-kun, you are experienced, just as a thought. With that speed, you must have a level in competitive karuta, right?’
'Eh? Ah… I’m… probably… yes.’
If you placed above third at a C-kyuu competition, you were allowed to call yourself a 2-dan.
'Thanks to you, I’ll be easier when marking the reports for class 5.’
The students started to applaud and cheer happily – but mostly, it was sparse applause and commotion. The general response was more like 'What? I don’t get it.’
Taichi came back to his senses. Chihaya’s words came to him.
– 'I told them that I’d go one-to-three against them, but then they just backed off… I wonder why? The speed’s fun.’
(I might’ve done it now…)
His stomach hurt.
Then, he suddenly heard very loud applause. When he looked that way, he saw Hirai clapping his hands with his eyes sparkling. Fujiwara-sensei joined him. With that, the students finally started to applaud in unison. The bell rang, signalling the end of class.
As the students left, Sensei and Taichi cleaned up the cards. Hirai helped without being asked.
'You’re amazing, Mashima-kun. How did you play so fast?’ asked Hirai.
'There are kimariji – they’re the characters that determine which card you’re hearing. I memorized them. Then I memorise the position of the torifuda, and I’ve always had good reflexes.’
'Reflexes! With a game this fast, your reflexes would get much better, wouldn’t they?’
Ah. Taichi realised that Hirai was talking about being a goalkeeper. Taichi had never thought about or felt that soccer had any relation to karuta.
'But it’s got to be connected to your concentration too. You move your body so quickly – it’s amazing. And you guard the cards too.’
'Are you talking about kakoite? That was because there are two cards that start with “kimi ga tame”, so the strategy is to at least protect the one closer to you.’
Taichi felt like he’d heard Sensei sigh when he did a kakoite…
(Right, it was the same with Chihaya. When I protected “asaborake a”… she sighed at me.)
Taichi hadn’t forgotten. He could remember it vividly, the way he’d protected each and every card. The pleasant tension. His rising concentration.
'I wonder if I’d be able to do it like that too.’
Hirai was looking at Taichi’s hands enviously.
'Soccer and karuta’s different.’
'That so… I really did think it was amazing though. I want to try… Would you teach me?’
Eh, Hirai!? Taichi’s eyes went wide. Then, Fujiwara-sensei clapped a hand on Taichi’s shoulder.
'I’d like you to teach me as well. Why not have a karuta circle? Even if it’s just one hour a week.’
'Circle? Why not make it a proper club? If we prepare now and apply, we’ll be able to have an official one by next year. Fujiwara-sensei, please be our supervisor. Mashima-kun and I will start.’
'All right, I understand. We can use this room. Then, we can have meetings on Wednesday during club time.’
'W-wait a second, I haven’t said…’
Hirai and Sensei had already decided everything. Taichi was stunned. His feeling were wavering as his gaze landed on the torifuda he had stretched his hand out for to put in the box.
<nageke tote> and <wasureji no>.
(When Chihaya and I were waiting for the luck of the draw, Chihaya’s card was “wasureji no”, if I remember correctly.)
Fujiwara-sensei followed Taichi’s gaze and took <wasureji no>.
yukusue made wa
’“kata” is written with the character used in “hard to bear” – it means difficult. “You said you wouldn’t forget, but it will probably be difficult for you to not forget in the future” – a poem that laments the ephemeral quality of promises.’
Taichi’s heart was given a jolt.
– 'Because we have karuta… If we continue, we’ll see each other again. We’ll definitely see each other again.“
Taichi would never forget Chihaya’s words back then. Even if he forgot karuta, Chihaya’s voice as she said "we’ll see each other again” was the one thing he could never forget.
Arata’s figure as he started to cry too –
(If I continue karuta, I’ll… see them again, eh?)
Fujiwara-sensei put the <wasureji no> card into the box.
'Mashima-kun, when you play karuta, you look incredibly serious and alive. I’m envious. If I were younger, I might have been able to make such an expression as well.’
Sensei’s eyes, half covered by his white eyebrows, were kind.
'It seemed like you were really enjoying yourself, Mashima-kun.’
'Yeah, it looked really fun, and you were super serious – I couldn’t look away!’
Hirai nodded overenthusiastically.
'It was fun… I really had fun with karuta just now.’
Taichi’s heart started thumping now, long after the match had ended. His cheeks were hot.
'When I saw you having so much fun, I thought I really can’t beat you in that. Though I wouldn’t be able to beat you in karuta speed either. You’re definitely the best in this school at karuta, Mashima-kun.’
Ah… That almost escaped Taichi’s mouth, but he managed to keep it in.
(There was something I could do better than Hirai. Even though I lost to him in studying and athletics…)
Taichi looked down, worried that his happiness and confusion was apparent on his face.
(Arata was so amazing that Chihaya was enthralled. I was enthralled too. Now, Hirai was enthralled by me… I’ve done my best in karuta… I really do like it, though I’ve just realised it now.)
A warm feeling welled up in Taichi7s chest.
(It isn’t because I beat Hirai. It’s because I’ve realised I like karuta and Hirai said he thinks it’s interesting and wants me to teach him… I’m happy.)
Chihaya was probably searching for friends to play karuta with because she wanted somebody to say that to her too – 'That looks fun! I’d be happy if you’d teach me.’
The last “nageke tote” card was put away by Fujiwara-sensei into the box.
'This is by Saigyou right? I know the poem,’ murmured Hirai.
'Yes, Saigyou, the priest. Do you understand the “kakochi” in the rest of the poem?
’“kakochi gao naru
waga namida kana”’
Hirai shook his head.
'How about if I change it to the language we use today? “kakotsukeru”. Even though you know the reason in your heart, you blame someone else – that’s what it means. With this poem, it says the moon is shining coldly and is telling the writer to lament, which is why tears are flowing down his face.’
('Even though you know the reason in your heart, you blame someone else.’ – kakochi gao… Even though I didn’t hate karuta…)
Taichi looked up. He stuck out his chest and put a smile on his face.
'My teaching is strict! It’s because I come straight from the Shiranami Society, where we play offensive karuta with nonstop attacks.’
'OK! Then every Wednesday will be karuta circle day then!’
* * *
It was late autumn. The cherry blossom tree’s leaves, dyed vermillion, fluttered through the school courtyard. Chihaya watched absentmindedly.
Her karuta with Inaba had ended.
She had nothing to do after school. Though there were the things she had to do like homework and studying, she didn’t feel like doing it. There was nothing she would enjoy doing or just wanted to do.
She didn’t find new friends to play karuta with. Perhaps Inaba was the only person in this middle school who liked karuta… liked classical literature.
Michiru patted the bored Chihaya on the back.
'Chii-chan, come to the track club! Seki-sensei says you can come any time, and he’s even filled out an order form for a uniform. I’d be really happy if you joined too. Then we can always be together.’
Michiru would say that sometimes, but Chihaya didn’t feel like it.
(I like Michiru, but… it’s not like I like track, and…)
'If you practise the starting dash, it might be useful for karuta, said Seki-sensei.’
'Seki-sensei’s really thought of everything… But it feels like I’m being baited, so when I hear that, it just makes me not really want to.’
Michiru smiled wryly. It seemed she felt the same way as Chihaya on the inside.
'Then I’m going to club. See you tomorrow!’
Maybe Michiru would see Seki-sensei’s troubled face again because she couldn’t get Chihaya to join. When Chihaya thought that, she felt apologetic, but it would be rude for her to go if she didn’t actually feel like doing it.
Filling in Michiru’s spot, Chihaya’s female homeroom teacher walked up to her.
'Here you are, Ayase-san. What is with this list of schools you want to go to!? Write actual school names.’
It was the first time since entering middle school that Chihaya had had to fill out a form with the high schools she wanted to go to. They had to write these and take interviews many times until actually writing the formal ones in third year.
'If you’re going to write “a school where I can play karuta”, why not research which schools have competitive karuta clubs? You can use the computer in the tech room. I’ll allow it.’
'Ah, er… I’m not good with computers. I wonder where…’
(If you’re talking about a strong karuta club, Hyoro-kun’s school, Kitaou Academy has one, but that’s a boys’ school. I wonder what high school I can go to play karuta. I’ve never even thought about high school entrance exams. Inaba-senpai and Yamabe-senpai are probably studying hard right now for those… Will I do that too eventually?)
– 'Karuta’s for smart people, isn’t it?’
The moment Inaba’s face came up in Chihaya’s head, she heard Inaba’s voice in her ears.
'A school for smart people… I see, smart people are good at memorisation.’
If there were many people like Taichi with good marks, they would definitely play karuta with her. The first friend Chihaya got to play karuta was Taichi. Taichi played with her. Yes, Taichi was the one.
'I’ll go to a school for smart people!’
Chihaya’s homeroom teacher’s eyes went wide in shock.
'You mean a school for students who want to head to university? With your marks, Ayase-, you’ll have to work really hard… Anyway, a public one? A private one? I’ll give you documents, so decide between the two.’
… Private would probably be impossible. Chihaya herself knew that much.
Her sister, Chitose, had transferred schools in the third term to the arts course of a private middle school and then advanced to the connected high school. The school had expensive fees. Chihaya had overheard her parents talking about how it would be difficult to send another child to a private school with their family finances.
'Public. As close to my home as possible.’
A school for students aiming for university that wouldn’t cost much to get to would be good. Chihaya wanted her older sister to be able to do her best at whatever she wanted without worrying about anything.
'I see. A top class with dozens of people getting into Tokyo or Kyoto University would be impossible for you. For one that’s close to your house, there’s the prefectural Mizusawa High School or – ’
'I’ll choose Mizusawa!’
Michiru was probably aiming for that school too, thought Chihaya. She wanted to go to the same school.
’… The higher your dreams and goals, the better. Work hard. Work really, really hard.’
From that day on, Chihaya studied hard as well so that she would be able to find friends to play karuta with in high school.
However, her mother, rather than being pleased, was worried.
'Chihaya, it’s my fault. I’ve been focusing too much on Chitose so you’re studying to make me pay attention to you, right? Studying is good, but you don’t have to be so fervent.’
’… In karuta, the smarter you are, the stronger you can become though.’
Her mother sighed in relief. It looked like she thought that her daughter would be fine as long as she loved karuta.
'Harada-sensei did say that. I feel safe leaving you in his hands.’
'That’s not it though. Harada-sensei said, “Chihaya-chan, even if your memorisation is the best, you’re not the only person at that level. Since everyone is aiming for the top, many people reach that stage. What you need then is reflexes and senergy. Chihaya-chan, you use all your energy in matches and faint right after matches, right? You need to build up your strength.”’
When Chihaya mimicked Harada-sensei’s voice, her mother burst out laughing. 'You sound exactly like him! Build up your strength though… that’s true. But that makes it sound like some sports club, even though poetry fits under culture. It makes me think of running – it doesn’t match at all.’
Running… 'Chi-chan, come to the track club.’ Chihaya remembered Michiru’s words. You’ll build your strength. Instantaneous force too, since you have to hold your breath and sprint for short distances. Practising for the dash at the start might be useful for karuta –
(Build up my strength, eh… But it’s not like I want to do exercise. I want to play karuta.)
While losing to the loneliness of not finding a friend to play karuta and feeling beat down, it would take a few more months before Chihaya joined the track club as Michiru asked.
* * *
The town was filled with Christmas songs.
On a day off, Chihaya went shopping on her own to buy a Christmas present for Michiru. Her mother was supposed to come, but her older sister suddenly had work so her mother went with her. Her father always came back late and seemed busy, so Chihaya wanted to let him rest on his days off at least.
Chihaya reached the platform of the nearest station just as the train came in. She got in and spotted somebody completely unexpected in the back of the same car.
(No way… No way. There’s no way, right?)
She had wanted to meet him this all time. She had wanted to, but she had forced herself to forget. That was why her chest felt so full right now.
'Taichiii! Aaaah! It’s you, Taichi! You’re here!’
'Ack! Don’t be so loud – you’re causing trouble for everyone.’
'It’s been so looong! How’ve you been? Are you studying hard?’
Taichi’s expression turned stiff and she looked away. Like Chihaya would let him pretend he didn’t know her – she grabbed his sleeve.
'Where are you going?’
'Hey, Taichi, Harada-sensei’s applied for B-kyuu for you. He’s waiting. He didn’t say anything, but I know… You can come back at any time. B-kyuu sounds nice. Arata is B-kyuu too. I want to become B-kyuu soon too.’
Chihaya had said that all at once. Taichi glanced at her, seeming on edge. He looked away again.
’… You don’t hate karuta, right?’
Taichi stayed silent.
'At the C-kyuu competition before, I met Hyoro-kun. He was with upperclassmen from the karuta club at Kitaou Academy. The middle school and high school there have their club activities together. Hyoro-kun stopped going to the Shiranami Society, but he’s playing karuta at his club inside.’
A cold reply.
'I’ll keep your part of the promise we made with Arata too, so…’
(… Does he think I’m annoying? Won’t he listen to me talk about Karuta any more?)
Chihaya went silent in her anxiety. Suddenly, Taichi started chuckling.
'What is it?’
'Hey, Chihaya, I… I’ve found a friend who’ll play karuta with me. We have a karuta circle at school.’
A bright smile. Taichi flicked Chihaya’s forehead.
'Eeeeeh!? No fair no fair no faiiiir! I don’t have a karuta friend yet! Karuta really is for smart people.’
In mortification, Chihaya pinched Taichi’s cheeks – it was strange, but there were tears welling up in her eyes. Her nose itched and her whole body – not just her chest – felt hot. She couldn’t stop the emotions welling up.
'U… uu… tha… than…’
Taichi didn’t give up on karuta.
Thank you for continuing to play. Thank you for not forgetting our promise. Chihaya just wanted to say that, but hot tears poured down her cheeks instead.
Taichi frantically held out a handkerchief and stood in front of Chihaya so that the people around them wouldn’t see.
'Is it really worth crying over? Here, use this.’
'I… I have… one.’
Chihaya went through her bag.
'Even though you always wiped your mouth with your sleeve in elementary school… What a strange character this is. A drunk old man?’
'N… no… This is Daddy Bear.’
With a Daddy Bear handkerchief in hand, Chihaya kept crying. Taichi patted Chihaya on the head.
’… Karuta’s fun, isn’t it.’
Chihaya nodded numerous times.
They reached the next station.
'Eh?’ said Taichi. 'Look over there. Isn’t that the pork bun guy?’
Chihaya wiped away her tears and looked at where Taichi was pointing – the platform.
'The round guy we played in a team competition. Don’t you remember? From Suihaku Society. The guy who lost at the national competition finals to Arata – ’
'Ah! That pork bun!’
The roundish boy with a tennis racquet handle sticking out of his sports bag was running along the platform. It looked like he had gotten off this train and was running towards the gates.
Chihaya and Taichi looked at each other.
'It doesn’t suit him…’
The boy tripped and his racquet flew out of his bag. The cover fell off and the strings snapped.
'I wonder if he’s still playing karuta. I don7t see him at the competitions… so he’s playing tennis now…’ murmured Chihaya. Then, the bell announced that the train was about to start.
'Maybe the pork bun didn’t have friends to play karuta with in middle school either.’
'People have their own situations. If he still likes karuta… you might meet him again somewhere someday.’
After returning home from shopping, Chihaya found the next year’s New Year’s cards on the living room table. Her mother had bought them yesterday. It seemed like her older sister had increased the amount she would send this year as many were prepared.
'New Year’s cards already? Right, I need to write to Arata.’
Chihaya had decided to not send Arata letters often. She didn’t want to make him worry that she didn’t have any friends to talk about karuta with.
She definitely wanted to tell him that Taichi had started a karuta circle though.
Even though it was a day off, Chihaya was alone in the quiet living room – she turned on the TV, took one postcard and looked for a ball pen.
“Happy New Year. Are you well? Though I lost at the C-kyuu competition in September, Taichi won and advanced to B-kyuu and has started a karuta circle at his school – ”
The television was playing news.
<It has been snowing since last night in the north, and in some areas, there is too much snow to clear off the roads, which has had an impact on traffic.>
A map of the area from Toyama Prefecture to Kyoto Prefecture along the Japan Sea was shown on the screen.
'Fukui! A lot of snow? We haven’t even had our first snow here. And they had heavy rain in the summer too – it sounds tough.’
<The warm days continue, as Fukui’s prized daffodils sprout quickly. In order to protect the sprouts from the snow, they are quickly being covered in straw – >
'Is it snowing? No, I’ll say, “There was heavy snow in Fukui, right?” And then… What was it with Taichi… Right, right. “asaborake a” and “kimi ga tame wa” – Taichi did a kakoite and I couldn’t take it, so right now I’m working on that – ’
Chihaya didn’t realise that both the cards were about falling snow. On the screen, the northern region continued to be buried in white snow. Snow fell, putting the ground to sleep before spring.
'Oh no! One card isn’t enough! One more.’
Chihaya took another post card. There was only a little time left in this year –
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