This is the 2nd chapter of the fantasy novel “The Rainlands” (雨の国) by Haruka Asahi (朝陽遥) which I am translating from Japanese with the author’s permission. It is about a man’s journey to a mysterious land and his encounter with its indigenous people.
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“The Rainlands” by Haruka Asahi: Chapter 2
Strangely, a gentle wind was always blowing within the cave.
Coming from somewhere down deep in the tunnels, this wind continually flowed up and out through the entrance. Its sound reverberated against the cave walls and–combining with the roar of the rain–was indistinguishable to the murmur of a large crowd. As I spent time there, I gradually grew accustomed to this noise and eventually stopped paying attention to it, but there were still times when I suddenly had the eerie sensation of being surrounded by a massive group of people.
I’d once heard that careless usage of fire in an enclosed area could lead to a harmful buildup of smoke. But thanks to the constant breeze, it seemed those living here could freely use fire without such concerns. As a result, the air inside was generally warm and dry.
The cave’s structure was surprisingly complex. The passages themselves were not particularly wide, although they extended deep into the mountain, diverging and rejoining in various places, and there were alcoves attached here and there. These tunnels seemed unlikely to be natural formations; I imagine they were instead the work of several people digging into the rock over time, little by little.
No one used lights within the alcoves, only relying on the faint illumination that leaked in from the passages. Probably because of this, these people didn’t seem to have any concept of doors.
Walking through the passages, I came across a few alcoves which had no signs of use.
At first I thought they had simply become vacated for some reason or another, but as I looked closer, I got the impression they were being used as small shrines for a special purpose. There was nothing formal like an altar; they just appeared to be kept immaculately clean, and people generally stayed out of them. I soon realized that the cave’s inhabitants always wore solemn expressions when passing by these alcoves.
It was quite a strange spectacle to see people behave this way towards an empty room. Yet I had to admit that around the world, each region had their own unique set of beliefs. I began to follow the example of the inhabitants here, straightening my posture ever so slightly each time I passed one by.
I was told that as their guest, I could freely come and go to most areas inside the cave, however I was not permitted to go deeper than a certain point. They claimed it would be dangerous to do so, but when I pressed them as to why the explanation I received told me nothing.
The people of The Rainlands almost never raised their voices, perhaps because of how sounds echoed through the caverns. But soft voices were easily be drowned out by the incessant rain outside, making communication difficult. I assume that their habit of engaging in conversations from an extremely close distance–such that I nearly misunderstood the intentions of a few young women–was because of that.
Everyone here was exceptionally friendly, and many were eager to hear my tales of distant lands. Judging from this, I gathered that visitors from the outside world were quite rare.
When I began to speak in one of the cave’s rooms, people would gather and form a small circle, listening intently to my stories, my voice barely audible above the rush of rain falling outside. I told them about whatever came to mind, things I’d heard and experienced throughout the world.
For example, I told the tale of how in the far, far south there was a place where the sea boils, emitting thick, white steam. I spoke about the ancient legend of the northern people where the sun never sets in a land of eternal twilight on the top of the world. Another day I talked about massive rhinoceroses the size of small mountains that inhabit the central plains, and the tribe there who made a living on hunting them on an appointed day, once every three months.
In exchange for my tales of far-off lands, they gladly shared their food with me.
I heard that on the rare occasions where the rain let up the men would venture outside, scale down steep cliffs, and hunt for fish and other prey. The majority of meat available was from bats and snakes. There was also dishes prepared with ingredients like mushrooms and moss, which were apparently gathered from somewhere inside the cave. When I was offered my first bite of one of these, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t hesitate. But it was clear I wasn’t in a position to be picky about what I ate, and as a visitor, I thought twice about being selfish.
Furthermore, once I got used to it, the taste actually wasn’t half bad. But the downside of the food here was it wasn’t filling at all.
One day when the weather was unusually clear, everyone ventured outside.
It goes without saying that the men went out to hunt and gather when it was cloudy out or no more than a light drizzle. But on that day, when the weather was truly great, there was a mad rush where virtually every man, woman, and child went to one of the rocky spots outside of the cave to soak up the bright sunshine that shone down on the land. Watching the children frolic to their heart’s content was a sight unlike anything I’d seen before.
On that day even the bird calls echoing through the valley sounded livelier than usual. When the sun rose, the sky that had been thick with morning mist turned crystal clear as far the eye could see.
As I sat on an outcropping of rock and looked around, I was reminded of how a surprisingly large number of people lived within a single cave. There were several similar caves in the nearby area, each of them supporting a community of a different size.
There was another thing that I finally realized after all this time: the small proportion of men here.
Food and other necessities for everyday life that could not be obtained inside the cave, including fish and meat, as well as things like nutritious fruits growing on the side of cliffs and branches that would burn when properly dried–anything that carried with it an element of danger–acquiring any of these things was always done by men. I was deeply touched as I looked at each of their faces, guessing that there was no small number of men who lost their life for this reason.
Faces that I thought I knew so well from my time in the cave took on very different appearances when viewed carefully under the bright sunlight. I also discovered that a certain girl who had often greeted me shyly since my arrival was quite beautiful and not nearly as young as I had thought. She smiled back self-consciously when she recognized me. Her eyes were a deep, pure amber color.
Her smile lasted only for a brief instant. When I took my eyes off her, she joined a group of girls around the same age, jovially laughing and chatting with them. For a moment I paused, absorbed in the sound of her voice. It had a pure, clear ring to it, completely different from when I had heard it inside the cave.
Things had become quite festive. People who had previously spoken in hushed voices inside the tunnels were now, in the warm sunlight, laughing boisterously and looked to be enjoying themselves thoroughly.
I observed the women of the village had a tad more body fat compared to the men; this was another thing that I hadn’t realized until I saw everyone outside in the bright sun.
In particular, the teenage boys were nothing more than skin and bones. I was surprised to discover the boys who had always come to see me, eager to hear my stories, were actually much skinnier than I’d thought.
Perhaps their bodies, running on such a restricted diet, couldn’t keep up in a time of accelerated growth. When I thought about that, I felt a tremendous pity for them. But the objects of my pity were now frolicking around happily, seemingly oblivious to me as I observed them. They also seemed oblivious of the dizzyingly deep valley that sprawled below the rock ledge they freely jumped upon; this sight was enough to make me held my breath.
I continued to watch them, enjoying the rare sunlight, when suddenly a short old woman hurried towards me with a precariously fast gait, grinning widely.
She nodded and introduced herself with a gentle voice, then muttered a few thickly-accented words. Someone from the caravan who had been relaxing nearby opened his eyes wide as if surprised, quickly crouched down, and whispered to me. This woman, it seemed, was the village chief of this cave, a very important person, so I had better avoid saying anything inappropriate.
As I stared in astonishment at the old woman, she sat her petite body down on the ground and waved a hand back and forth in front of her face slightly, as if saying there was no need to worry. This gesture of hers struck me as being very down to earth. Having calmed down a little, I finally introduced myself. This time in place of a simple nod, I gave a deep, formal bow.
She spoke once more, this time more slowly. It seemed she was asking what I thought of this place.
I answered something to the effect of everything I come across is so different and interesting, and she nodded generously, displaying the subtlest of smiles.
Her expression now, as before, had a certain ethereal quality to it, exuding a sense of divinity that was unlike any being of this world. While it may sound strange to say this about a woman her age, her smile was truly beautiful.
The old woman got up slowly as she said something about me staying here as long as I like. As if compelled by some unknown force I watched her recede into the distance, while the people around from the same cave gazed at her tiny form with a deep sense of reverence, almost as if they were about to prostrate themselves on the ground in worship.