This is the 3rd 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 the indigenous people there.
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“The Rainlands” by Haruka Asahi: Chapter 3
Wild cheering erupted out of nowhere. When I turned around, vivid colors unlike anything I’d ever seen burst out from a nearby rock ledge.
A myriad of flowers was piled there in a spectacular rainbow of hues. Where could all these flowers have come from? While there seemed to be plants living inside the caves, in the land of unending rain I had a hard time believing this many flowers could survive on the scarce sunlight seeping in from cracks in the cave’s rocky ceiling. This meant that in a very short span of time someone must have ran around outside, gathering them from all over the mountain.
Women sang together with high-pitched voices. I couldn’t make out the song’s words too well, but it had a lively feel to it and was, perhaps, a song of celebration.
Surrounded by flower petals and cheerful voices, a man and woman walked closely together, arm in arm.
The crowd was calling out to the couple, their embarrassed smiles visible even from a distance.
“Oh, it looks like a wedding ceremony. I’m very fortunate to be able to see this,” said a peddler with a grin.
When I looked around, I spotted the amber-eyed girl from earlier and another girl she’d been talking with observing the spectacle on the rock ledge with flushed cheeks. I stared at them, strangely moved by how girls tended to express that particular emotion in the same exact way, regardless of the country you were in.
“In these parts, you see, wedding ceremonies are held only on clear days, like today.”
The caravan man who said this looked to the sky, eyes squinting against the light. It was only natural that in a place which suffered from torrential rains, the blessing of radiant sunlight upon the mountains was the ultimate adornment for a wedding.
According to him, tradition dictated that each tribe was comprised of blood relatives living together in a single cave. When there was a marriage, the groom left his cave and was welcomed into the cave of the bride. Marriages between members of the same cave were forbidden.
I could see the logic in this. It is said that repeated marriages within the same family can lead to unforeseen, undesirable effects on newborn children, thus their tradition can be viewed as an important piece of wisdom evolved over many years.
The girl with the amber eyes called out to the other girls nearby, then quickly spun around. She sprinted away, bare feet striking lightly against the sun-warmed rock. For an instant she disappeared from my sight, only to reappear moments later, climbing the rock ledge where the ceremony was held. Because of her uncanny speed I couldn’t figure out how she had reached there.
With an exuberant smile, she spoke with the bride and then the groom. I guess she was close to both of them and had rushed up there to wish them well.
Someone scattered flower petals from a rock ledge higher up. Picked up by the wind, they gradually fluttered down to the rock ledge below.
While being congratulated–or perhaps teased by the crowd, the couple walked together, bodies dangerously close, until they disappeared into the cave.
After that day of wonderful weather, I continued to pay attention to my surroundings and confirmed that the number of men here was, in fact, terribly low.
Even assuming that men are more likely to lose their lives in an accident, the difference I observed was very extreme. It may be that men are born less frequently in these lands, just as some mothers’ bodies seem to have a predilection for girls or boys. In those days I had thoughts like this in the back of my mind.
Sometime later, the children whom I had been seeing frequently around in the caves suddenly disappeared.
One day, during a break in one of my usual storytelling sessions in the cave, something felt different. I realized that since yesterday, I hadn’t come across two of the children who had always listened to my stories with great interest.
“I wonder if Ian is going to come by today. And what happened to Yakt?”
When I asked about the boys by name, a hint of awkwardness emerged in the expressions of those present in the form of a vague smile or frown.
“Those boys won’t be back anytime soon.”
This was mumbled by an old woman. Her voice sounded somehow sad and yet distant at the same time. I was caught completely off guard by her sudden change of attitude, as she had been so friendly to me up until now. I guess I had said something inappropriate.
“Did they get sick? Or hurt?”
When I asked this, the others shook their heads, responding that nothing like that had happened so there was no need to worry.
Then were they being punished for some wrongdoing? Still confused about what had happened, I asked this because they seemed like the type of boys to get easily carried away and play a prank of two. At my question, the crowd broke into raucous laughter, but even that had a strange awkwardness to it.
A girl mending something in the corner of the room looked up to me and spoke.
“It is a custom of ours.”
When I repeated this back idiotically, she averted her gaze and hung her head. It was her–the girl with amber eyes.
“Now is the time when those two cannot be seen by others,” she said and pressed her lips together tightly, as if declaring she would speak no further on this matter.
Her eyes, which had sparkled like diamonds in the sun that day, were now downcast and filled with sadness.
An eerie silence filled the room. For some reason unclear to me, the others glared at the girl with looks of disapproval or caution.
Still confused, I tried to talk to her once again, but an old man stood up before I had a chance. He approached the girl, took her hand, and said something to her with a bitter expression.
Ecudoraara. That’s what it sounded like. I didn’t know what this meant, but his tone of voice sounded like he was trying to urge her to do something.
She whispered something in response, then shook her head and covered her mouth with her hand.
The old man led her out of the room by the hand, the tools from her unfinished needlework still on the ground.
Just then, the sound of the rain intensified, its roaring surge booming throughout the tunnels. No one spoke, and the tiny room became thick with an uncomfortable silence.
Out of curiosity I considered following the girl out of the room but hesitated. Before I could make up my mind, the old woman who had spoken earlier tugged on my sleeve. “Got any other stories for us?”
As I began to tell a new story, complying with her request, my eyes kept darting to the room’s doorless exit.
But for the rest of that day, the girl never returned to the room.
Several days later, on a morning when the rains had paused and only a few clouds dotted the sky, the caravan departed The Rainlands.
Apparently completing business to their satisfaction, they left behind a large number of goods in exchange for rare items such as strange dried goods whose purpose eluded me, as well as medicinal herbs and fragrant wood that were only available in this area, carrying these on their backs in tightly wrapped packages.
They had come here to trade, braving long hours on foot over unforgiving roads that prohibited the use of pack animals, so even the odd items would surely be used as high-priced medicines.
After seeing off the caravan, the men here said they were going out to hunt so I tried to tag along. However, perhaps because they considered me clumsy, I was told that I’d just get in the way and was immediately sent back to the cave.
I had nothing left to do but return to one of the larger rooms, where a group of people was mending and doing other work with their hands. As I entered, I saw their eyes sparkle in the candlelight, as if eager about what sort of extraordinary story they would get to hear today.
That day I had planned to tell them a legend about a bird that could speak the language of humans, a tale told for ages in the western lands.
In that region, it was said there was a place surrounded by an abundant forest, called bird’s paradise by some. A great variety of bird species flew about, exchanging calls noisily, and in this forest lived a bird who could speak human language.
In one city, the legend said that this bird was an incarnation of God and had helped a group of children lost in the forest return home. In another city, there was a story where the same bird tricked a man who had escaped to the forest after killing someone, leading him to fall from a cliff to his death.
By the time I had finished telling several stories, the men had returned with potatoes gathered from the bottom of a cliff. As they passed out food–something like a porridge made from boiled, finely mashed potatoes–I noticed again how their arms and legs were terribly emaciated.
The potato porridge was delicious. These potatoes, which grew with their roots deep into the ground to prevent being washed away by the rain, had a rich flavor that gave the impression they were packed with nutrients. Indeed, all one needed to do was step foot in the forest which sprawled far below these barren mountains and you would see the abundance this country had to offer.
But in truth, even that forest was a dangerous place, where at any time you could be swallowed up by a flooding river or buried by the crumbling mountainside. Just climbing down the cliff and walking through the forest was fraught with peril. The climb itself was virtually impossible unless the rains let up.
Was there really a good reason to prefer living in these mountainous lands, given all the inconveniences they forced upon their inhabitants? In my time in The Rainlands, I pondered this conundrum many a time.
Could it be that those who lived here since birth did not consider these things to be inconveniences, but rather a natural part of daily life?
It was evident that their eyes sparkled with delight as they listened to my tales, always pestering me for more. And yet, some time later I had a realization: no one had ever spoken about visiting these distant lands. Not even a single person expressed a desire to live in any of the places I spoke of.