This is the 4rd 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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Generally, I recommend reading the previous chapters first, but if you want to start here I’ll give a brief synopsis to this point:
A man decides to travel into the mountains to a place called The Rainlands where there is torrential rains year round. He begins to learn about how they live and experiences their unique culture, like how they hold colorful weddings outside on the rare days when the sky is clear. He also discovers the ratio of women to men is much higher than usual. Later, he realizes that a few of the boys he had used to meet frequently had suddenly stopped showing their faces in the tunnels. Throughout all this, he wonders what keeps these people living here under these harsh conditions…
“The Rainlands” by Haruka Asahi: Chapter 4
Later that night, on my way back to the small room where I slept, I caught a quick glimpse of a short person heading deeper into one of the tunnels.
It was dim and the figure was a good distance away, so I couldn’t be certain. But I could have sworn it was the amber-eyed girl.
Soon after arriving in these parts, I was strongly warned not to go deep into the tunnels because it was dangerous. But the girl had just passed over the very spot I’d been told that even the natives would not venture beyond.
I chased after her. Remembering her dejected expression several days ago when we last spoke, I became concerned that something was deeply troubling her.
I was about to call out to her, but it dawned on me that I didn’t know her name. While I was trying to decide what to say, she continued deeper and deeper into the tunnel. I kept up for a while but eventually lost sight of her. Sometime along the way the path began to curve gently, and a little farther ahead it split into two.
I followed the arc of the passage, ending up in a place where the illumination from the lights I’d passed no longer reached. But up ahead there were more lights. Upon seeing those I immediately knew that what I’d been told about nobody ever going this deep was a complete lie.
Even so, I hesitated to trespass further into this forbidden area. Besides, if the stories about danger here were not true, surely I had no reason to be concerned with her safety.
I turned around and began to retrace my steps, but an odd groaning sound made he halt.
At first I thought it was simply a sudden gust of wind or perhaps the sound of the rain reverberating throughout the caverns. However when I slowly turned back around and listened carefully, I became convinced it was a human voice.
The voice sounded raspy and weak.
Could someone have gotten injured and trapped here, deep in the tunnels? In the dead of the night, at a place like this?
I had my doubts, but I knew if I just left this alone, I wouldn’t be able to get a good night’s sleep, so I decided to continue forward. The idea of turning back and reporting what I’d heard to someone also crossed my mind, but my feet were propelled forward by the fact that I’d already intruded into this forbidden place.
There was a fork in the path. Because of how the tunnels tended to muffle sounds, I had no way to be certain which direction the voice was coming from. Having no choice but to guess, I picked the path on the right for the time being.
Even though I should have been fairly deep into the mountains by that point, I could still hear the rush of torrential rain outside. I had the sensation the noise was coming from far behind me, and yet at the same time originating from the direction I was headed. The constant breeze probably meant that the tunnel didn’t dead end, but instead returned eventually to the outside.
Before long, in the near darkness I caught sight of another fork up ahead. It was only then that the possibility I was lost finally entered my mind.
Yet, as I approached it reluctantly, I was surprised to discover that what initially appeared to be the tunnel branching off was in fact the entrance to a small room. The alcove had been created by boring into the wall, just as the people here did to make their living spaces.
Inside the room was a truly bizarre sight: a grid of iron bars.
It was the first time I had seen such a thing in these caves, where the concept of doors didn’t exist. No, perhaps they were not iron bars after all. Their texture felt like metal or something similar, but in this region I had never come across ironworks of such a scale, larger than anything brought in by the caravans.
In any case, before me was some kind of bars. Unnecessarily large bars. When I thought about their size, at first I guessed a criminal was imprisoned here, and the bars also served to deter others from approaching too close.
When I gazed into the dark depths of the prison cell, I gasped in horror. Inside was Ian, one of the troublemakers who had often come to listen to my tales.
Eyes shut and weary, Ian’s shoulders trembled when he heard my gasp.
On the other side of the steel bars was a bottomless darkness from which his upper body protruded as if emerging from nowhere, lit by the faint light seeping in from the tunnel. I could see his arms were even skinnier than when we’d last met a few days back.
The incessant howling of the wind intensified for a moment, resembling a wail of sorrow.
“What happened to you?”
I asked this, voice hoarse and barely audible, but Ian didn’t immediately answer. Whether he was too weak to respond or simply unwilling to, I couldn’t be sure.
His face looked nothing like it had several days ago, and it wasn’t only because of the darkness. A hint of masculinity showed in his features, suggesting he might enter adulthood in the near future. But nonetheless, it was still the face of a child that you would expect to see running and jumping around outside, without a care for the world. The cheeks were painfully emaciated, the lips feeble and limp.
His condition was quite unusual just for someone who had been imprisoned for misbehavior. I wondered what reason there could be for this boy to be given such a harsh punishment.
Ian opened and closed his mouth several times. He seemed to be struggling to say something.
I crouched down and put an ear as close to the boy as the bars would allow me.
I had become somewhat accustomed to the boy’s accent, at least compared to when I first arrived, although spending around only ten days here wasn’t nearly enough to gain a complete understanding. Having said that, there was no mistaking the meaning of his words now.
“They aren’t feeding you anything?”
When I asked this, Ian responded with a slight nod of the head. The boy used his arms to sit upright upon the bare floor of the jail cell, as if the act of speaking had helped regain some of his energy.
When I looked closer, I spotted what appeared to be a small container filled with water near the bars. Ian took this and raised it to his lips carefully, as fearful of spilling even a drop. I could see his fingers trembling just from the effort of lifting the wooden bowl.
“What happened to you!?”
Without meaning to, my voice had turned abrasive. I knew that logically there was no use in expressing my anger to Ian, however I had nowhere else to vent these feelings.
My voice resounded loudly through the tunnels, mixing with the sound of the storm until it finally faded away.
I was about to ask, “Does everyone know about this?” but decided to keep quiet. Of course everyone knows. When I’d asked about the boys’ disappearance, the others had just dodged the question with vague responses, staring me down with disturbing expressions.
“It’s a custom.”
Ian said this and coughed weakly. He then began to talk, slowly and with frequent pauses, about a tradition handed down from many generations, from even before the time of his great grandmother’s great grandmother. Those that didn’t pass this trial were not considered as men of the village.
It took the boy a very long time to explain this to me. Even speaking required a great amount of energy.
They call this a ‘custom’? You’ve got to be kidding…
This was just a fancy word that meant getting rid of children to help conserve food, I thought as I remembered my hometown.
The place I was born and raised was also impoverished. Heavy rains often triggered natural disasters. At times the fields would flood or the wheat crops wilt from lack of sunlight. Without enough food to go around, children were frequently abandoned by their parents who could barely survive themselves.
Things were no different here. Children were starved and fooled into believing in some important ‘trial’, while the others silently waited for many of the children to grow weak and eventually die.
Ian told me that all men who lived in these lands went through the same trial in order to become respectable adults. But he failed to mention the part about how some children were left to die.
“What about Yakt? Is there any other children here?”
Ian responded to my question with a bony finger pointing to something behind me.
Afraid of what I might find, I spun around quickly; there was another small cell enclosed with bars on the other side of the tunnel. Within the darkness of the cell, Yakt’s limp, emaciated hand was visible, illuminated by the lights in the passageway.
He was remarkably thin, even compared to the other children, with a unnaturally small body that seemed underdeveloped. A bad feeling came over me and I blurted out his name. Behind the bars something moved–one of his scraggy fingers had twitched.
He was still alive.
I ran up to his cell and extended my hand through the bars where I made contact with a finger. It was nothing but skin and bones, and yet a hint of warmth remained. The boy mumbled my name, voice frail as if on the verge of tears.
For a moment I gripped his hand tightly in silence, unable to get any words out. I could see the whites of his eyes shining faintly, floating in a sea of absolute blackness.