Hole 2: Grave Keeper
Muoru was in the middle of the dark.
He imagined he was staring at the wooden wall running with rain water. Around him, he could clearly hear the sound of water dripping as if there was a hole in the ceiling. Lying down and grabbing one of his knees, Muoru’s thoughts meandered.
…how long has it been since there was livestock in this stable?
Judging by the condition of the walls that had been exposed to the wind and rain, and the damaged interior, it would seem like it’d been a long time since the structure had undergone any maintenance.
But despite the condition of the stable, the mansion was likely a new building. Even though he’d heard the graveyard was on an old plot of land, the mansion was either a new building or it had been totally reconstructed from scratch.
However, back in the stable the ceiling and the support pillars were rotting and falling apart, to the point where they were almost unusable. Yet, if he were to guess from the still usable floor space, he’d say the barn was probably large enough to house ten riding horses.
It may have been empty now, but that didn’t mean the stable was built for no purpose. Muoru had no idea how long ago it was, but at one point there were definitely horses in the stable.
–Since ancient times humans and horses had lived together.
It was as if the beautiful herbivores had been mistakenly made by the gods solely for the purpose of being ridden by humans. In the past they excelled as a method of transportation, they helped with tilling the fields, and during wars they rode with their owners into the battlefield. The unit of measurement “horsepower” remained from that era and it was still widely used and recognized.
However, nowadays the value of horses has continued to decrease.
From the advances in science and the subsequent invention of new technology, horses seemed to have been replaced by vehicles and railways for all the industry duties they had once been considered useful for. Since humans were always looking for ways to increase efficiency, horses, which have been mankind’s companions since before recorded history, have been disappearing from the limelight.
There was even a car at this graveyard mansion. Muoru had seen the blackened and seemingly high class vehicle zoom about more than once.
Certainly the removal of the livestock and domesticated animals from the stable followed the arrival of that car. And now that stable served as the residence of the gravedigger instead.
Since the first day he’d stayed and slept there, Muoru had noticed many remnants from the previous gravediggers. There was a long black strand of hair whose owner’s sex he couldn’t determine, some strands of brown frizzy hair, an impression in the straw he slept in, and various, dirty scraps of clothing. They were all scattered about the stable inconspicuously and at the moment Muoru could not see them.
He crouched motionlessly in the dark stable, devoid of even a trace of a light source. And since he couldn’t see, he became acutely aware of the nature surrounding the building. If he tried to walk out into the graveyard it would be just like when he had been blindfolded in the past.
In the middle of that darkness he held out his hand in front of his face. Though he couldn’t see, by touching something with his fingers he could adequately imagine whatever was in front of him.
…Already two days had passed and Muoru could still clearly remember the feeling of touching that monster.
Graced with an electric lantern lent to him by the old woman, Muoru took his shovel and returned to the graveyard.
Inside the lantern, which resembled an insect cage, was a battery and lighting equipment composed of a metallic alloy of copper and zinc. And from the mortar sealed front of the box, the lantern gave off artificial white light at the flick of a switch. It didn’t need coals or oil to light up the surroundings, making it a valuable and convenient tool.
If this had been under normal circumstances, Muoru would be delighted to get his hands on such an apparatus.
He was in the graveyard in the middle of the night. Beneath him was the trackless path he and Meria had returned to the mansion on a few days ago. This time though he walked alone, carrying his shovel as usual and the lantern. The trees were rustling around him as he neared the rows of graves, all beneath a half moon that was wrapped in sparse clouds.
The wind blowing against his skin was only lukewarm, but there were still goosebumps on his arms. Sweat dripped down the entire length of his back, and he found it difficult to breathe.
Before he had grabbed Meria’s blood-covered hand and they had talked for a little while…just for a little bit. But even then he felt like he had encroached upon something that she was trying to hide. When she was leaning against him, it was the first time Muoru had ever seen her nervous.
His fickle feelings once again completely froze him in place.
If it were just a bad dream or something, then it’d be okay… He thought, trying to console himself…but unfortunately there was no longer a thread of a chance for him to escape.
Since that monster was so terribly big it had already entered his field of vision. Instinctively he wanted to look away.
Yet looking away made no difference. Whether he chose to look or not, it was still there.
A short, yet massive shadow was cast on the slightly sloping graveyard ground. And it didn’t move an inch. The monster casting the shadow was similar to the images in picture books, something like a giant ocean monster…though now as a corpse it seemed like the spectacle of the creature had come to an end.
Muoru’s legs stopped about fifty paces away from the monster.
What am I doing? I shouldn’t have to approach that. I should be running away from it.
“Mankind’s natural enemy.” The meaning of the phrase was becoming more and more clear to him.
Since before written history, over many thousands of years, mankind had lived in fear of those things, of them. It was true that for several hundred years humans had prospered a bit and were no longer consciously aware of those monsters, but deep down in their bones the memory and the fear of them persisted.
Both Muoru and the horse-faced MP, who had escorted him, both felt it when they first arrived here. Without saying anything, they both could feel the ominousness in the air. At the time, Muoru had thought it was a result of the image of a dark place the word “graveyard” conveyed.
But the reality was completely different.
Probably the moment he arrived at the graveyard his body understood the truth. In fact whatever the feeling was, it was able to grasp this truth better than even his standard five senses could.
And now, he knew that monsters which could kill him easily were sleeping under the very ground he was standing on.
Shit, this is no joke.
The boy finally became aware of the impossibility of the task before him.
From now on I…
Now he had to bury that thing.
But first he had to move it to the hole it had taken him forever to dig. And in order to push it along the ground, he’d have to get closer and touch it.
His body and heart froze just thinking about it.
There is no way I could do that…huh, what’s that smell?
Suddenly, he could smell the stench of something like rotting fish. Muoru, who had been devoting all his attention to the monster, looked away, as if he were running away, to search for the source.
What in the world, why have I not noticed it until now?
He looked at his feet illuminated by the lantern light.
The surrounding soil…was stained and soaked with a red liquid.
His mind couldn’t think of anything else, it had to be the blood that was spilled from Meria’s body.
He clamped down his mouth, closed his eyes, and then made his legs carry him forward towards the monster.
Muoru didn’t know whether it was “The dark” or just a devil.
Now that fallen, gigantic monster was dead…no, he didn’t know if it was alive or not. But regardless if the expression “its existence was undying” was appropriate, for the time-being the giant mass of flesh was completely motionless.
If it really can’t move, then no matter how often they were called “mankind’s natural enemy” it shouldn’t be able to harm me, right?
Relying on that fact, Muoru endured the pain in his chest and continued his approach.
He walked with a shaky gait, as if he were crossing a suspension bridge where the rope had been severed.
His closed eyelids had plunged his vision into complete darkness, but despite that, he advanced bit by bit.
Something small hit his cheek.
Muoru in a laughably, comical display of surprise opened his eyes.
As he did, he found himself now standing face to face with the monster.
Without twisting away from IT, he wiped his cheek with the back of his right hand.
Not only did sweat seep into his mud covered glove, but also a drop of coolness.
It seemed like before he knew it, the clouds had rolled in and darkened the sky. Which meant what was now on his cheek was probably the first drop of the rain.
Even as he craned his head backwards to look up at the night sky, the monster’s body never left his field of vision. The soft and flabby sack of flesh was easily more than twice Muoru’s tall height. And it had a trunk much wider than him with countless clawed legs. But while it had those things, the eyes and mouth that were expected of creatures were nowhere in sight. And within the giant sack of flesh, whose ugliness reminded him of boneless creatures like leeches and octopuses, he was unsure if there was something actually stuffed inside.
He was close enough that he could touch the monster. And just looking at it for a moment was rewriting his beliefs that such a creature couldn’t exist. There seemed to be no limit to the swell of unpleasant feelings he had, and as if triggered by his emotions, a blood vessel in his forehand throbbed, inducing a sharp pain in his skull.
At his feet the monster’s legs were spread like a spider web. All of its countless legs were longer and thicker than a giant serpent which could strangle a bear to death. On top of that, springing from the tip of each of the legs was a claw like an executioner’s sickle, all of which looked sharper than any blade he’d ever seen.
And on those sickles he could see Meria’s blood clinging in thick globs.
It was too late to stop himself from thinking about that now. A little while ago a countless number of the monster’s claws had been ripping through her body, each more than enough to kill her. And each one of those blows that had mutilated Meria’s body was seared into Muoru’s pupils.
But now he had to touch and move that monstrous creature.
Even though he had drawn this close, it was still a ridiculous idea.
In fact, the idea was driving him crazy.
The blood on its claws was the same blood that clung to Meria’s hand when he had grabbed it
-Whatever secret the girl had, he didn’t know.
Yet, even if he asked her, she most likely wouldn’t tell him. And if she did, it would probably be something that he couldn’t understand.
One thing was certain though. Meria, a single girl, had opposed that monster.
With those thin limbs, and that small body…
Muoru didn’t quite know what to call the force that compelled his body into motion. Willpower? Backbone? Regardless, he placed his hands on the monster’s core and pushed with all his strength.
What he felt through his gloves was not warmth or coolness, nor was it softness or hardness. Rather, it was the completely weird sensation of thrusting a hand into the innards of a corpse.
Shaking violently, the sack of flesh tilted.
From the vibration, Muoru thought the monster had woken up.
Looking at his hands, he thought he could see the thin gloves eroding all the way to his flesh.
But there was no erosion, just a problem with his mind.
Resist, he thought. Resist, resist, resist, resist….
He was surprised by a burning sensation in his eyes. His vision was blurring and something hot ran down his cheek.
Muoru wasn’t sure when it had started, but his eyes were tearing up.
“Aaaagh!!” the boy screamed in irritation. However, instead of giving up he borrowed from his despair and once again pushed against the giant monster.
As Muoru mustered as much strength as he could, the grotesque body started to advance forward, the sound of the movement as loud as a landslide. Muoru put everything he had into his arms, even digging his toes into the earth to brace himself, but in the end he was only able to move the monster a little bit.
Throwing his shoulder down and pitching forward, the boy continued to push.
-All while the thick landslide sound continued.
-All while he continued to endure the unpleasant feelings spilling out of his body.
-All while his shouts, sounding like someone was vomiting, echoed through the graveyard.
But Muoru was the only person there to hear his shouting. And as he continued to push against the grotesque body, gradually the rain striking his back increased in intensity
While he listened to the sound of the rain leaking through the stable — No, while he crouched beneath the still secure and non-leaking roof, Muoru stared into the darkness.
It rained non-stop for two days.
When it was just a passing shower, the rain didn’t hinder his work. Since it was summer, when the temperature lowered it was actually easier to pass the time. But he couldn’t walk through the graveyard at night. With the clouds hiding both the moon and the stars, he couldn’t even see what was right in front of his nose.
However, when he didn’t go outside his face wore a different, pleasant expression. He figured there was a lot to think about…and that he needed time to collect his thoughts.
With the changing of the times the horses had disappeared from the stable. Yet, even after departing they still left traces. And so thinking about the possible other gravediggers that had lived in the stable before him, Muoru wondered, where in the world did they go?
Once Crow had said to him, “No matter how many people are employed to dig holes, since they are unable to tolerate the existence of the demons, they will soon become useless.” At the time he’d ignored the words, but now Muoru felt he had firsthand evidence that Crow’s words were true.
Suddenly there was a knock on the stable door.
It was a small sound, but definitely not something that occurred naturally. In fact, being so accustomed to the quiet sound of the rain leaking, the tiny knock was enough to startle him.
But after two days, the moment he heard that voice his shock turned into relief.
There was only one person in this whole graveyard who called his name like that.
The door opened quietly and Meria entered, leading with her lamp. The device’s weak light dyed the room orange. She remained silent the whole way from the door and even when she eventually sat down.
Since the ceiling was rotting and riddled with holes, in order to avoid getting soaked by the leaking drops of water, the two of them had to sit so close that their knees were touching.
Her face was mostly concealed by her hood, but she didn’t even try to meet his gaze. She probably came here without an umbrella, Muoru thought as he looked at her dripping wet bangs and slightly damp cloak.
Like usual, Muoru was too nervous to really speak. There were endless questions he wanted to ask: Was her body okay? Did she forgive him for the peeping incident? Who exactly was “Meria” and what in the world was a gravekeeper? But, he was unable to put any of them into words. In fact, he never thought Meria would visit the stable in the first place. There was no reason to think she’d forgotten what happened, but as he took another look at her from a much closer distance…
“Is something wrong Meria?” the boy asked, his thoughts running wildly.
Meria withdrew her left hand that she was hiding in her cloak. She was holding a very large apple.
Speechless, Muoru just sat there as the girl seemed to squeeze the fruit before eventually handing it over.
“I can have it?” he asked suddenly, just like when he’d borrowed the first aid kit before.
But this time Meria didn’t nod or do anything. The only thing she did was continue to hang her head and hide her face.
Thinking it couldn’t be helped, Muoru looked down to the fruit in his hand. It was large and magnificently ripe, and its weight seemed to suggest it was full of juices. Personally, he liked all fruits except pineapples so technically this apple was the first treat he’d received since he’d arrived at the graveyard. Honestly speaking, it had been a while since he’d even had an apple that hadn’t been touched by worms.
“Ah…” The girl opened her mouth at last and Muoru looked up.
“I will be your friend,” she said, shutting her eyes as her face turned redder than the apple he was holding.
Muoru again looked away as if someone had struck his cheek.
Somehow looking at her directly embarrassed him more than watching her bathe.
Though the words were different, the feeling behind them was like she’d just confessed her feelings for him
…Was it really similar?
Unable to bear the embarrassment any longer, Muoru asked, “Um, Meria?” The words sounded like a protest and the girl instantly sat up straight.
I should speak as gently as possible.
Although he was troubled by the situation and the effort he wasn’t accustomed to, he continued. “I don’t know why I have to think this is so embarrassing. But being friends is not that big of a deal so it’d be okay if you just say “yeah or sure”. Those words should be okay don’t you think?”
Meria slowly opened her eyes with the same slowness as the moon rising into the sky. Quietly he watched her long eyelashes flutter.
The girl’s blue eyes slowly looked to his.
Muoru found himself looking away from her more and more. He was again feeling the impulse to touch her hand…and he desperately thought he needed to kill that feeling.
Still looking at Muoru, Meria eventually nodded once. “Sure”.
Muoru lifted his face.
Then as if suddenly switching from offense to defense, she quickly started to hesitate.
“Sor… sorry. I came suddenly.”
“It’s okay, I wasn’t sleeping,” he said, but she didn’t seem to be really listening.
“But, it was just that. No matter what, I wanted to tell you that.” The moment she stopped speaking, Meria jumped to her feet with a rare display of agility and a face once again turning red.
Looking at her back as she started to cross the stable, Muoru said, “Thanks….for the apple.”
Meria nodded once. “Sure”
With her hand now on the doorknob, Muoru asked another question to her turned back, “You said don’t come out for a while, but is it alright now?”
Meria nodded once and the boy forced a smile.
Then she was gone.
Alone again, Muoru chewed on the apple in the dark. The fruit was juicy, sweet, and it smelled good.