This is the second chapter of a story I am translating titled “House Ephemera” (蜉蝣の家) by Hatasu Shikishima (識島果).
Thanks to Sherayuki for helping proofread this chapter.
You can see the full Japanese text of this chapter here.
See this page which contains a brief synopsis and links to other chapters (as they are posted).
As usual, whether I continue translating this will depend on feedback/views from various sources. If you like it, please consider leaving a comment here. Or you can vote for it on this survey of things I should translate.
Chapter 2: Levin’s Letter (1)
I was a rather gloomy child for my age. Undoubtedly, this was because of my medical condition to a certain degree, but I felt that my inborn disposition played an even bigger part. The truth is that I did not want to live. Essentially, I wanted to die young.
Although I was born into a well-to-do family, I suffered from severe asthma and other chest problems. Because of this I spent a great deal of time in a cottage near Roadford Lake, together with our nanny (who had a tendency to nag) and our servant boy. The air in Roadford was very clean–at the time, London was a much grimier, unhealthier place, a filthy city choked by soot and smoke–and I guess my parents thought it would be good for my lungs. However, I was never able to live up to their expectations and failed to develop much of a likeness for Roadford’s magnificent countryside. Neither the cute red squirrel, busily rummaging around in the soft soil burying walnuts, nor the refreshing wind blowing across the lake, smelling sweetly of verdant Oak leaves, could make much of an impression on my youthful heart. Each time the nanny brought me a bowl of tasteless soup, saying, “Boy, your health is poor so you should avoid heavy exercise,” the suffocating feeling that came upon me was surely not due to any medical condition. The servant boy Nigel was a few years older than me, but he always threw me nasty looks whenever my parents weren’t around.
“Can you hear the wailing of the banshee?”
On nights when the thunder rumbled, without fail he would try to scare me.
“It’s trying to drag you away. Then it will possess you. With your scrawny, weak body, I can just picture it ripping you to shreds in no time.”
Nigel absolutely adored saying terrible things like this to frighten me. As a result, it was very difficult for me to make any endearing memories of the beautiful Roadford.
My cottage–or shall I say my parents’ cottage–was nestled quietly in the wilderness, its back abutting the lake. The walls were a traditional design employing slate slabs to form a rough surface that was always cold to the touch. The faded window frames were most likely a vivid blue, back long ago when the building was first constructed. The area in front of the cottage was enclosed by the same kind of rock wall built from piled-up slate, almost as if its sole purpose was to keep me from escaping. My room faced the lake on the back of the ground floor, so I would spend entire days staring out at it from the latticed double windows.
But, to be honest, gazing out across Roadford lake wasn’t nearly as dull as I have lead you to believe. Perhaps it is difficult for you to imagine; but in the Lake District, known for being foggy year-round, there is an indefinable soothing quality to the sight of a flock of greylag geese as they glide gracefully across the surface of the water behind a veil of thin mist. Sometimes Daurian jackdaws would fly up to the window behind which I sat and peck at the glass, as if trying to get my attention. Every once in a while, I would leave my room and take a stroll along the bank of the lake where ferns flourished. If I looked carefully at the lake’s clear surface, the water chilly enough to numb my fingers–even in summer, I could spot the gentle flapping of an Arctic char’s dorsal fin.
In the springtime, next to a grove of trees on the far side of the lake grew clumps of bluebells, forming a magnificent violet carpet, where I imagined fairies with delicate paper-like wings dancing about merrily. At that age I had still secretly believed in the existence of fairies. When the nanny and Nigel weren’t watching I would go inside the grove where I found bushes bearing red, jewel-like raspberries and sour gooseberries. When summer came around, the hydrangea and foxgloves blooming on the near side of the stone wall were a delight for the eyes.
In the beginning I said that I couldn’t develop a likeness for Roadford, but, recollecting things now as I write this letter, it occurs to me that perhaps after all, I had grown a considerable affinity for Roadford Lake. It was just that my tender heart had been so badly bruised by other things–like when the nanny severely scolded me after catching me on the way home from the grove, mouth full of raspberries, prohibiting me from going outside for the next three days, and when I finally was able to return to that secret place I was horrified to find it badly trampled by Nigel–so I guess all of the good memories had been painted over with black.
That is, except for that night.
I had gotten out of bed gasping for breath, unable to sleep well from a fit of coughing. Experience had taught me that this would provide a modicum of comfort. I wheezed heavily, waiting for the attack to subside. I felt absolutely horrible, but during that time neither the nanny nor Nigel came running to my room. I presume they were both sound asleep because it was already quite late. Shivering, I switched on my bedside lamp. The inside of my room began to glow faintly and I began to feel better. Teary-eyed, I glanced casually outside the window. I had only wanted to peer out at the lake to calm my nerves.
At that instant I spotted something on the lakeside. Shocked, I drew close to the window, my problems breathing completely forgotten. The shape appeared to be a human figure.
I soon realized that the lamp’s light was reflecting against the glass, so I cracked the window open with a creak. At first I thought maybe there really was a banshee, but when I swallowed my fear and strained my eyes, I could just barely make out what looked like a figure of a man wearing a long overcoat. He appeared to be standing still as he gazed at the lake, his back to the cottage, then he suddenly turned around and looked right at me. I gather that my light amid the darkness had drawn his attention.
The man turned his body to completely face me. Even then, I couldn’t clearly make out his face, but it was evident he was beckoning to me to come.
At the same instant, my heart began pounding furiously in my chest. Initially I feared the onset of a another coughing fit, but no–this was something altogether different: with each throb of my heart, something like excitement coursed through my body. I had never experienced anything like this before. I swallowed hard, opened the window just enough to fit through, and stepped one foot outside, barefoot. Even now, many years later, I can still vividly recall the sensation of a tree root digging into my heel. All fear, all hesitation, had left me. Thinking back about that time, I had this overpowering sense of confidence; I didn’t even check if the nanny or Nigel were nearby.
I hopped over the window sill, slipping out of the room in my pajamas. The suffocating feeling had completely disappeared without a trace. Outside the air was damp and chilly, but by no means unpleasant, and an agreeable sense of excitement about the imminent adventure pervaded my body. While I weaved quickly through the ferns, the man waited there motionless. Once I approached and got a closer look, he did indeed appear to be not a ghost, but merely a regular person. I stopped before him, breathing heavily with hands on my knees. As you can imagine, it had been quite some time since I last ran that fast, and my heart and lungs felt ready to burst. He looked down at me, saying only, “Want to ride with me?” and motioned towards the lake. There sat an aged boat tied to a stake, floating quietly in the shallows just a foot or so from the coast. I felt my face grow red in embarrassment. Even though I had been aware of the boat’s presence the entire time, I had never considered that I might be able to actually ride it myself. I nodded wordlessly.
Looking back now, it was unbelievably foolish of me to take off across that lake at night, alone with an suspicious adult whom I knew absolutely nothing about. But at the time everything felt like a dream, and as a young boy I just accepted what was happening without question. And thus, I took the man’s hand and stepped into the boat.