Hole 2: Grave Keeper
Muoru definitely felt he was in “midsummer” as he looked upon the graveyard flooded with the glaring noon light.
The ground had darkened as if it had forgotten all the rain that had fallen up till yesterday. And due to the sun burning the growing vegetation and moss, a choking smell of greenery hung in the air.
Muoru placed down his shovel and walked to the graveyard empty-handed.
It wasn’t that he was skimping on his job; he’d followed his instructions and in fact he’d only stopped digging a little while ago. He wasn’t trying to prolong his work either, but if a person didn’t take occasional breaks in this heat, they’d be in danger of heat stroke. Generally speaking, if it was one of his mole companions, in this type of weather they’d faint without any hope of being discovered. And in the worst cases there was even the possibility they could die of dehydration.
Well, there may be a dog, but basically I’m the only human here.
Even so, if he took a break he didn’t know whether it was better to go back to the stable for a bit or simply lie sprawled out under the shade of a tree, looking idly at something. For the moment however, his feet were taking him towards the place he’d buried that monster several days ago.
Naturally he didn’t feel like going there, but despite the fix he was in as a result of the work he was made to do as a punishment for the false charge, he felt compelled to check on the status of his work.
That level of rain shouldn’t have washed away the soil after I’d packed the ground so firmly.
When he arrived at the grave, Muoru saw something that hadn’t been there when he’d been digging several days ago.
It was a gravestone…
Someone must have set it up when the rain let up
…that’s right. Since they weren’t just dumping a simple corpse into a hole, a gravestone was necessary. But though at the time he’d been desperately pouring all of his energy into burying that gargantuan monster, he hadn’t even given that idea a single thought.
Maybe Daribedor arranged for someone else to set it up.
He drew closer and examined the stone. The slab came up to his hips with corners that had been shaved down to make rounded edges. The material also had the cheap quality like some kind of grey andesite. On its face was an epitaph, but there were only various numbers carved into the stone, no name.
This wasn’t made by a very good stonemason, Muoru thought as he traced his finger across the top carved seal. My father was definitely more skilled than this.
However, just like how he could barely remember the sound of his father’s voice, the last time he’d seen his father’s work had been ages ago. If he were being honest with himself, he felt the memory had faded away to the point where he could not fairly compare it with the stone in front of him.
In addition to the current year, there was also what looked like a number denoting measurement on the stone face for some reason. It seemed to indicate the size of the monster buried beneath his feet.
To be sure, if something went horribly wrong and the monster was dug up, it definitely wouldn’t be a laughing matter.
Muoru again stared closely at the epitaph. The following narrow and long sentence seemed to describe the monster in detail.
“Huh? Mole-kun, you can read?”
“…so, where in the hell do you spring up from?” Muoru said, his face lacking either amazement or resignation as he reoriented himself to face Crow, who had yet again managed to sneak up on him.
They were wearing their usual outfit with the familiar black bobbed hair, the yellow cape, the checkered necktie and matching shorts, along with the tough army boots. At a brisk pace Crow crossed over to Muoru, hopped into the air and sat atop the new monster’s grave.
“It’s simple. I swoop down from the heavens. I am just a bird after all.”
The boy sighed; Crow didn’t even have wings on their back.
Muoru then lightly shook his head and in an unusual action from himself, sat cross-legged on the ground.
“Hm, what’s wrong? It’s not good if you don’t drink enough water. You’ll get heat stroke.”
“No, my head’s just tired… I’m using parts of it I usually don’t use after all.”
He rarely went to school and he couldn’t read without bumbling like an infant; the same was true for his writing. However, just knowing some specialized words, understanding numbers, and being able to sign their name onto a pay slip receipt or attendance sheet was enough for a soldier tasked with doing manual labor to be able to function properly. Reading books or maps and thinking about things like tactics were not his responsibilities.
“Yeah, amazing, amazing…” Crow said while clapping, though their applause lacked any energy.
Feeling like he was being made fun of, Muoru glared at Crow. But then Crow looked to the heavens and said, “I can’t read or write at all.”
Muoru didn’t know what to say. He was a bit surprised to hear Crow say that.
He’d heard that long ago paper was something with an extremely high value. Unless one was a scholar, nobleman, bureaucrat clergyman, or something of that level, things like bound books were an impossibility and something that person simply wasn’t fated to use.
And even now there certainly were children who were never exposed to information due to their area not having a school. In poor farming villages children were still quite precious for hard labor and so it was preferable for many of them to engage in more practical endeavors, rather than reading and writing.
He found it impossible that Crow couldn’t read after they had explained in torturous detail how the existence of those monsters had somehow affected entire civilizations.
“Ah, you’re already making fun of me!” Crow replied, as if suffering from indigestion. They looked angry, with their cheeks puffed out. “But it’s okay. Even birds have many friends. And I have real smart friends too. If I ever needed help, I’d simply have one of them read it for me.”
That was Crow’s character, thinking they knew tons of people.
“Don’t sulk…it’s bad, and a bit unlike you,” Muoru said.
“Well…right back at you. I mean, don’t you think it’s surprising that you can read better than me? I don’t think that’s fair. So, why?”
“Why…that’s a good question. My family was definitely poor so I wasn’t really able to go to school. And even though I never asked, it felt like my brother wanted to teach me. If I think back on those memories, I guess my brother could only somewhat read and write.”
“Wow, it sounds nice to have a great older brother…is he well?” Crow asked cheerfully.
“Well, I’m not sure how he is. I think he’s still alive but it’s already been over four years since we’ve last seen each other,” Muoru said with a shrug.
His eldest brother should be at their father’s home, training to follow in his footsteps. Even with the passing of the times, and with the amount of stonemason work fading along with the influence of the temples, he was probably still working in some fashion.
His second eldest brother had entered the military before he did. Since they belonged to the same company Muoru thought perhaps they’d cross paths, but unfortunately his brother seemed to have been garrisoned far away and so they never saw each other.
And now I’ve become this… I’ll probably never see either of them again for the rest of my life.
“That is….lonely huh?” Crow asked, awfully sympathetic.
“Well, that may be so. But we’re all adults now. And no matter how good or most likely bad our relationship is, my brothers would never put themselves into the same kind of ditch as me.”
“…But…it’s not good that your family was pulled apart.” Though Muoru had already resigned himself to that reality, Crow’s statement still bothered him.
“If you feel like that then you shouldn’t become an adult. Being unable to see your family even if you want to would probably be sad for you huh?”
“About that, well… in the end everyone eventually has to say goodbye someday. But, won’t you won’t be able to see them again if you die?”
“Well, that’s right….I guess.” Even if Muoru understood in his mind, his emotions didn’t try to agree.
Looking at the dark expression on Crow’s face as they sat with their legs dangling and their eyes pointed to the ground, Muoru could clearly see Crow’s irrational inner thoughts pushing to the surface.
He had an unusual feeling as he looked at Crow. For Muoru, Crow was more of a mystery than Meria, which meant he couldn’t trust them. And even though Crow spoke to him in a friendly manner, it was probably because they were hiding something. He felt that way even now.
“By the way, you said that you had a lot of friends outside this place,” Muoru asked suddenly, causing Crow to look up with a start, not even a single bead of sweat on their face.
Even in this damn heat, Crow is completely unaffected. I’m jealous.
“Um, well about that.” Crow was a mysterious unknown. Everything Crow said was suspicious to the point where Muoru had no idea if it was okay to believe them.
However when Crow had said, “It’s not good that your family was pulled apart,” Muoru got the strong impression that those words were actually Crow’s true feelings. And it was a plus that the words weren’t bad. Nevertheless, just because for a moment Crow had spoken the truth, it didn’t mean Muoru could trust everything else Crow said.
But one thing Muoru thought was that if something was available, then it should be used.
So looking at Crow, he said, “If it’s possible, I’ve got a favor I’d like to ask…”
That night when the rain lifted, it was the first truly clear night in a long time where it was possible to see stars covering the entire sky.
Muoru had been taking a short nap in the early evening, stretched out on his straw bed. He was facing up towards the holes in the dilapidated stable’s ceiling, looking through them at the night sky.
It was a good night, he thought.
Even the temperature had fallen to cool levels. Plus, with the current amount of starlight, he’d certainly have no trouble seeing where he was going outside.
And probably even tonight Meria was alone in the graveyard.
Muoru couldn’t really think of a reason why he didn’t go and see her. She even said it was okay for him to come.
….but something was keeping him from taking action.
He was always tense. The girl was an important foothold for his escape plans, yet not knowing the best way to talk with her, he was nervous about the possibility that she hated him. But though he lacked the experience of talking fluently and was not very skilled at it, he couldn’t fail. And so, he was tense. He was always tense.
Within his chest he felt like he was caught in barbs which was making it difficult for him to move his legs.
“What do you want to do Muoru and what is the best way to do that?”
Whenever he felt like he had reached his limits, Muoru would always simplify the situation by using that phrase to collect his thoughts. Only focusing on trivial matters to the point where he missed more important things was the pinnacle of stupidity.
However, right now he felt like he was swaying from his own warning. He was also starting to question his own behavior…and that doubt was becoming the hook in his chest.
I should be sure.
Getting close to Meria was not the “more important thing” he was supposed to be focusing on. It may have been a method for his escape, but it was certainly not his goal.
Muoru slapped his cheeks with both hands.
It may not get rid of the hook, but as long as there are no misunderstandings it should be alright.
“Alright, let’s go,” he purposefully said out loud as he stood, opened the door with its creaking hinge and went outside. At the corner of his vision he could see the dog’s body sluggishly rise up, then follow behind him without its feet making a sound.
Once Muoru decided to go, his legs and feelings felt lighter, as if his worries from a little while ago had in a moment gone quiet. He forced a smile.
This is definitely strange if I say so myself.
He hadn’t even walked that far when the dark bushes near the stable rustled. But there was no wind.
Muoru jumped in surprise, as if an enemy were about to ambush him.
Then it started to come out.
Cautious and ready to bolt into a run at any moment, Muoru stared in the direction of the sound. A black robed figure was peeking at him from the shadow of a tree, like a ghost.
“Oh.” As the figure emitted what sounded like a small scream, it suddenly hid back behind the trunk of the tree.
Even with just a glance of her profile, when coupled with that voice there was no mistake that Meria was the person in the shadows. But he had no idea why she was hiding in the first place.
A strange silence fell upon the area.
Unable to decide what the right move in this situation was, Muoru stood still. He had planned to head towards the graveyard, but he didn’t need a person to guide him there. Granted, her being here definitely helped him out by cutting down on the time he would need to search for her, but something told him she was here for a different reason.
Hidden in the shadow of the tree, the girl kept on peeking out from the darkness, as if observing his movements. Muoru got the feeling that she really wanted to call out to him, but for some reason she couldn’t.
She was acting like some kind of small animal, timidly hesitating as it looked upon something unknown that had captured its attention. Muoru even felt that if he clumsily reached out to her, like an animal, she would scurry away in a dash.
Or perhaps could it be that…
Neither one of them could approach the other or call out. They were only ten steps apart, but despite their eyes locking onto one another they were both unable to communicate their true intentions….Muoru wondered just how long they stood like that.
Then before long, Meria finally stepped out from behind the tree, as if she had been beaten in some sort of competition.
“I just happened to be passing by,” she said, though not to Muoru, it was more so directed at her toes.
Muoru remained silent. He couldn’t think of anything to say in response. It was way too clear that she had tried to make a joke to mask her behavior. But it was so hard to imagine Meria telling a joke that Muoru didn’t know whether it was okay to laugh or if it would be better to say something funny back.
But as Muoru silently stood indecisively, the girl continued, “I’m sorry… that was a lie.” Her hood was hanging low over her face, concealing her features and muffling her voice.
You didn’t just happen to pass by.
However, he couldn’t bring himself to ask, So then, why? Even without asking though, he had some hypotheses of his own.
He thought back to the times they had crossed paths before. Even two nights ago when Meria had visited the stable she had a clear purpose for coming. But looking at her demeanor today, she didn’t seem to have any specific reason for being at the stable.
…did she come just to see me?
Or in other words, did she want to spend time with me?
“Ah, um, hey,” Muoru said, his voice suddenly going high-pitched, making the dog’s ears twitch. Even he thought the sound was unexpectedly loud, which perhaps explained why Meria retreated back a step, as if his voice was repelling her.
“The apple,” he hurriedly continued, in an attempt to stop her from running off. “It was delicious.”
Looking away from Muoru’s gaze, Meria nodded. “Yeah.”