Chapter 1: Takahiro
Chapter 1: Takahiro
I became obsessed with the Water Gods. There was one attribute of these living statues that so captivated me: they were everlasting. When I was still a boy, Ayase told me about how he visited places in the North and the West and found villages where people worship these statues. He would go on telling me about how the statues were human-like and exuded the feeling that they were waiting for something, always gazing far beyond the horizon.
“The old folks say they grew out the ground one morning and stopped changing, like a memory printed on paper,” Ayase said. “Perfectly white. Soft to the touch like cotton. When you look at their eyes, you will not be able to distinguish them apart from human beings. They are phenomena worthy of worship.” He looked away with a noticeable blush on his face, embarrassed about how poetic he sounded every time he shared his experiences with the Water Gods. Almost as if on cue, his Kamas went out of his bag and launched itself into the air. If this were any other day, the Kamas’s slick body and long grinning snout, transparent wings and silver skin, and peculiar tinted sun visors would always catch my eyes, which would give Ayase a reason to turn the topic elsewhere. I did not let myself get distracted.
“Is it some kind of plant? What do you think?” I asked. I poised my hand to write down his answer.
Ayase glanced at the pocket notebook on my lap. “Some kind of research paper?”
Shrugging it off, I said, “You could say that. So?”
He looked up at the sky and rubbed his beard. “Honestly, I don’t know. I’ve never really seen them up close. I always maintain a distance when I’m watching them.”
“That so? Then I guess it’s up to me to find out.”
“What are you going to do with that knowledge? It’s not like you can change anything.”
I smiled. “I’m not really sure yet.”
As if I could tell him my ulterior motive. On my way back, I passed by Alpha’s House. Its coffee shop had been destroyed by the recent typhoon. It was quiet today as it had been ever since Alpha went away last month. She did not tell how long it would take her, or if she was even going back. She left the keys to her house to Jii-san, and when I heard about that, I volunteered to do its regular maintenance.
The chime clinked when I opened the front door. The room was the same as I had left it last week. I got the broom, the mop, and the cleaning rag I had stowed inside the storage room and started cleaning the house. It was Alpha’s room next. “Excuse me for the intrusion,” I said out of habit. I inhaled the air before entering and smelled Alpha’s scent. I looked around her room and saw the decorations hanging on her walls. Wooden plaques of fish painted vividly with abstract markings. Frames with paintings of fishes. Sculptures of fishes on her reading table and closet. I slightly panicked when I felt that my eyes began to well up. “I should start cleaning,” I said.
I stopped when I reached her bed and imagined her sleeping face. Without her knowledge, I always watched her when she slept every time I had the chance of staying overnight. And without her knowledge, I always put a kiss on her cheek before I went back to sleep. I reached out to her pillow and caressed its softness. Then I took it in my arms and hugged it. I could feel her again. Her warm body against mine. Her soft cheeks on my neck. The smell of her shampoo that never failed to make me feel hot. Only one month of never seeing her and I missed her so much already. What a hopeless man I was.
I met Alpha when I was nine years old, and I never thought of her other than an older sister. I frequented her place where I got my first taste of coffee that Jii-san warned me not to drink until I was twelve. I was her youngest regular customer. We grew closer up to the point where I could spend my days in her house like it was my own. We shared our days together like a family. We laughed over things, cried over things, got angry over things. We never kept a secret. I wished that our days would go on forever and I knew she wanted the same. I was still naïve, so the concept of our difference had never occurred to me just yet.
I was never expecting that how I looked at her would change so suddenly. One night after we both got drenched in the rain, she innocently invited me to take a bath with her, reasoning that we might catch a cold. I was thirteen at that time, and my puberty was at its peak. She nonchalantly sat beside me in the small bathtub. The bare skin of our arms touched. I felt some kind of warmth rising in my midsection. I only got it every morning when it was time for me to wake up and use the toilet. But it reacted when her skin touched mine. She also felt the awkwardness of the situation, given how stiff she was beside me.
“The heat is turning me red,” I said, though I knew what the biggest factor was. If we both lost our cool, I was sure we wouldn’t be able to look at each other in the morning.
“It is. We can probably get out soon,” she said. “It just occurred to me. I probably couldn’t have caught a cold, could I?”
Her words made my heart skip a beat. I did not know if she meant it, but all the same, its effect on me was tremendous.
“I’m going out first,” she said and stood up from the bathtub.
It was no use. I could not look away anymore. Our eyes met in the mirror. She knew I was watching her naked body. I saw how her hands moved towards her breasts and crotch but stopped midway. Without covering herself, she went out of the bathroom with her head bowed.
I was still shocked as Alpha brought a sweater to me. I sat on her bed in a daze.
“Your clothes will probably be dry by tomorrow. You’ll have to wait till then,” Alpha said. She was leaning on the door as if saying, “You’ll have to stay for the night.”
I could not answer her immediately, but I managed an “okay” after ten seconds. My heart was drumming loudly in my chest as I searched the room for something to focus my attention on. Even Alpha had grown silent.
“Takahiro, you know…”
“Y-yes!” I gripped the bed sheet as I waited for her to continue. Her eyes were downcast, and I could see that her skin from her forehead to her neck was red.
The doorbell rang. We both jumped at the sudden intrusion.
“Ah! Let me see who it is,” she said.
Turned out that it was Jii-san who came to fetch me. It was unfair of me, but I did not go to her house for a couple of months after that day. It got something to do with me trying out the saying “time heals all wounds” or something. I was hoping that our absence from each other’s notice would erase the awkwardness between us.
I was wrong. The next time I saw Alpha, she acted cheerful towards me, same as she had been. Chatty and carefree. I felt different. The whole time I was with her, my heart did not let up with its intense beating. I was overly conscious of her. I ended up going home even though I had planned on staying over at her place. I realized I was not seeing her as an older sister anymore.
I was here again at Koumi’ishi-sensei’s house. I had asked her to teach me about robotics and to tell no one about it. She had gladly accepted my request, reasoning that she could never have found a better student. Every morning when I was not at Alpha’s place, I poured all my time to studying Sensei’s old books, notes, and blueprints. With nothing to distract me from it, I quickly learned the basic concepts of robotics engineering and its applications.
I only told Jii-san, Makki, and her folks that I started to study about engines. They thought what I was interested in were the bigger ones, like automobile and aircraft engines. I let it at that. Koumi’ishi-sensei had also been an aeronautical engineer anyway so it wouldn’t have been strange if I introduced her as my teacher. If I was not around, they knew where they could find me.
As I looked at Sensei’s notes on A2 and A3′s bio-robotics attributes, I was reminded of a conversation that had taken place the first time Makki and Alpha met. Alpha had brought us to a ramen shop for dinner. I excused myself for a bit to use the toilet and when I returned, I overheard their conversation.
“Do you like Takahiro?” Makki said.
“Because he really likes you.”
“Makki-chan likes Takahiro, huh,” Alpha said.
“I-it’s not like that!”
“Well, I like him, too. But the thing is…” She sighed. “I envy you Makki-chan. You and Takahiro are part of the same generation. I’m with you for now, but I don’t know how long I’ll be able to say I’m part of your generation. Your time and your body are riding on the same ship with Takahiro, while I am only watching your ship from the shore.”
I understood what Alpha was trying to say. She was saying that sooner or later we would leave her behind. We would mature and grow old while she would stay the same no matter how many years passed by. I wouldn’t say that she was unfair. But it hurt me all the same. That time I became aware of our difference. Of where I was and where she was, of the limited time I could be with her. Of the impossibility of sharing my life with her.
On our way home that day, the idea that there might be a way that I could extend my life or stop my aging altogether blossomed in my mind. That was the reason I turned to Sensei for help.
Sensei and I were eating dinner together. Fried fish, egg, and mashed potato. She also brought out a partially full bottle of sake.
“You don’t mind if you join me? You are already fifteen, aren’t you? Sooner or later you’ll have to learn to take a cup for something,” she said, stretching her wrinkled face into a smile.
“I don’t mind. I join Jii-san on cold nights.”
After we finish eating, Sensei took the bottle to the veranda and set two wine cups and a plate of sliced lemon on the table. We watched the darkness of the evening and the violently brilliant star-studded sky.
“You no longer look like a kid,” Sensei said. “It’s scary how time goes by so fast.”
“Yeah. Sometime soon, everyone will be leaving.” I could not help but feel sadness at the notion.
Her hand went to my head. “Fast but not that fast. It will still be awhile before a significant change occurs.”
Sensei cut my brooding with a laugh. “I heard from Alpha that you’ve met the Misago.”
“The Misago, huh. Yeah. It was six years ago. I’ve never seen her again.”
“My great-grandfather had also seen her. Some historians speculate that she might have been the first robot, but there is also a popular theory that she is the last human being of the old world. I’m partial to this theory. As one of the scientists who developed the Alpha Series, I’m well read about the history of robots. It would have been impossible to create a robot as perfect as the Misago one hundred years ago. The development of androids started in my grandfather’s generation. Most of their creations did not have sophisticated personalities like what the Alpha Series have. As far as I’m concerned, it is impossible that the Misago could have been created much earlier.”
“One hundred years? You mean the Misago has been here for one hundred years?”
“One documented sighting of her dates back 103 years ago. She was depicted as a naked woman who could jump over a ten-story building in one go.”
I blinked, turned towards the wilderness, and drank my sake. “I wonder what she is doing now.”
A lulling silence came between us. Sensei started the conversation again after we finished three cups.
“Maybe she knows the secret of what you are searching for.”
“Maybe—wait, how did you know about that?”
“Takahiro, I will be honest with you. This generation does not have the capability anymore to create robots. I am the only remaining specialist in the field. The last laboratory for the research and development of robots was destroyed by a tsunami twenty-three years ago. I don’t have the tools anymore to make a mechanical organ for you.”
“That’s okay, Sensei. But I will never give up. Alpha…how old is she?”
“A7M2 Alpha has the body of a twenty-one-year-old girl. But experience-wise, she’s just slightly older than you.”
“I see. Then I still have time.”
Sensei reached out for my hand. “It is a blessing for me that I met you but remember this. If you don’t wake up when it is too late, both you and Alpha will get hurt real bad. You can continue to pursue your dream, but please be aware of the time you have to let go if it is not realistic anymore. You are like a son to me, and Alpha is like my daughter. I don’t want either of you to suffer.”
“I will remember that, Sensei.”
Sensei smiled and raised her sake cup. “Nevertheless, as a researcher, I always root for people who pursue something new. I give you my blessing and wish you all the luck you can have.”
“Thank you, Sensei.”
I did not go home that night, opting to stay to spend some more hours reading inside Sensei’s library.
It was dusk, and I decided to make camp on a ledge covered by susuri grass. The sky was the color of diluted indigo with feathery clouds which fringes reflected the remaining light of the sun. Two arms away beside me was a Water God. It looked like a sleeping baby. I had investigated it this morning. It was pure white without blemish and soft to the touch like a clump of silk. I had gotten a weird reaction when I squeezed it. It was filled with liquid. I thought about cutting it with a knife, but even if I was dying of curiosity for what might be inside it, I still chose to uphold my promise to its caretakers. Besides, I too was now convinced that this mysterious mushroom was alive as human beings were alive.
I roasted some fish on my fire and watched the smoke as it ascended into the sky. The word everlasting once again floated to my mind. Who decided that humans could not live forever? Who decided that robots should not age? People took these facts for granted because nobody could ever dispute them. But I was sure that in the past some people had tried doing what I was doing. Sometimes I thought that the creators of robots were unfair, but thinking of it that way, I could not help but think that our own creators were the same.
I was woken up from sleep when I heard rustles near me. I popped my head out of my sleeping bag and looked around. A baby fox was limping towards the Water God. I turned to my side to watch what it was doing. The pup bit the side of the Water God. I almost jumped up from my position. I wanted to throw something at it to shoo it away. But then I realized how bad the pup’s condition was. It was mangy, its ribs were showing, and I could tell it had not eaten for days from the way it swayed on its feet. The pup licked the wound it made on the Water God, and I let it had its fill. I returned back to sleep. The next morning when I woke up, the Water God had disappeared.
Ojii-san still could not move around that much because he had hurt his leg a while back. I had told him that I would take care of the gas station. Fortunately, he was not your average stubborn old man. He listened to me, and most of the time I manned the gas station, selling daikon and gasoline or corn and gasoline. The sun blazed as it had been this past couple of weeks. I had not sold any pint since two days ago. Some grannies came by from the market but only bought daikon. I could say it was business as usual. I figured I might as well take a nap and wait out this heat.
I blinked at the person in front of me and my eyes widened. “Alpha!”
She was wearing her green vest over her white blouse and her backpack. Her overcoat was hanging from her left arm. The gleam of her ruby earrings washed away my sleepiness.
“Hehe, long time no see!” she said. She placed her hand on her green hair in embarrassment. That smile, I missed it.
“Welcome back,” I said.
“I’m home.” She looked around the gas station. “You’re helping at the shop.”
“Maybe about half and half with grandpa. It’s mostly daikon sold than gas these days.” Her eyes turned towards the daikon shelf, and her expression softened. “That’s great.”
For a moment, I could only stare at her. I was captivated, and I felt like it was a sin not to. Was it her fault for being cute? Or was it just my longing gushing out after more than a year of not seeing her?
“Oh, I’ll bring a chair. You want something to drink?”
“Here, there was nothing but tea,” I said, showing the can of barley tea to her.
“Thanks…” Her words trailed, and she tilted her head up to look at me. I thought I got dirt on my forehead.
“Ah, here, the tea,” I said.
It woke her up from her daze. She grabbed the can of tea in my hand.
“Your height…you grew taller again. I’m surprised!”
“Mhm.” I placed the chair beside mine which Alpha accepted with pleasure. “So, one year, huh, though it felt like you were gone longer than that. But I also feel like I just met you the day before yesterday.”
“Yeah…Hey, your voice! Isn’t it deeper?”
Same as always. She noticed way more details than your average girl.
“Well, a bit,” I said. “At first it turned into a strange scratchy voice. After a bit, at high pitches, my voice wouldn’t come out right.”
“I see,” she said, slumping on her seat. She seemed regretful as if she lost a bet. “Somehow, I can’t behave like I’m an elder sister to you anymore.”
“Then don’t,” I said, reflexively, causing her to look up. Our eyes met, and then she dropped her gaze. I realized too late what I had said. “No such thing!”
She was flustered for a few seconds, her blush accentuating her small face. She looked up at me. I erased every trace of embarrassment from my expression and smiled. Recovered, she blew her bangs up.
“Well, I have to open up my house before the sun sets,” she said as she put on her overcoat. “Thanks.”
“Yup.” I stood up from my chair. “Here. Give me your empty can.” I reached out for the can and accidentally touched her hand. She pulled her hand as if it was burnt. The can fell and clanged on the pavement. Both of us bent over to pick it up, but in doing so, our heads bumped.
“Sorry,” I said.
She stood away from me, shaking her head, eyes averted. She held the hand I had accidentally touched to her chest as if I might snatch it away from her. “No, I should be the one apologizing.”
The awkwardness between us escalated, and I groped for the words to change the atmosphere. “Oh yeah. I have to return your bike.”
“Oh, you can do it anytime.”
“I came with the truck today. Should I give you a ride home?”
“Truck? So, you can drive already?”
She put on her hat and made a sideways glance at me. “Umm…but I think I’ll walk today. Sorry. Give me a ride next time.”
I could feel my heart beating like crazy at the sight of her. All I could think about was catching that moment and keeping it forever. I wanted to reach out, hold and pull her face close. I chose to put my hands in my pockets.
“I see. Well, then, next time,” I said.
I watched her as she walked away from me. “I’ll tell grandpa, too!”
“Thanks!” she said. She raised her hand and waved.
Even though she had already disappeared from sight, I kept on watching. Somewhere deep within, I was hoping she forgot something and would soon return.
I found a spring coming from the cleavage of a rock. It flowed down to an old concrete trough, flowed over to a small pond, then to another pond, and another, making a chain until it trickled out onto a snaking stream less than the width of my palm. I drank a handful of water. It was cold and tasted like moss, but my tongue did not complain about it. I sat down to get my packed lunch from my backpack when my eyes caught the sight of a Water God. It looked like a white tadpole the size of a six-year-old child. Its chin was tucked into its chest as if it fell asleep standing. Another sound shifted my attention to my right, and I saw the same baby fox I had seen before ambling out of the bushes towards the first pond. It dipped its head and licked the water. Watching it from my position, I wondered if my eyes were not playing tricks on me. It had been five months since I saw the baby fox, but apart from its healthy appearance and snowy white fur, it had not changed a bit.
I parked Alpha’s bike near the fish weather vane of her shop. It was past noon, and the sun was giving off warmth that made you sleepy. I wondered if the shop was busy since I did not hear Alpha coming down to greet me.
“Hello,” I called out as I opened the door of the shop. No customer was around, and at the table beside the window, Alpha was sleeping. I thought of calling out again to wake her up, but I stopped myself. I silently approached her table, pulled out a chair, and watched her. I had done this so many times now, but I was still not tired of it. Alpha had her cheek on a hand cloth. She was snoring lightly. The afternoon sunlight coming in through the window illuminated her bare arms. I placed my chin on my palm, thinking if I should help myself to some coffee.
After a few minutes, Alpha stirred. She straightened up and stared at me with drowsy eyes. It took a few seconds before she realized it was me.
“Why didn’t you wake me up?”
“Sorry. I thought I should let you rest.”
“Man, that was embarrassing.”
“Alpha,” I said and then pointed to the side of my mouth. Alpha reddened, turned around, and wiped her mouth with her arm. “I’m just kidding.”
“You!” She lunged at me. We ended up on the floor. I was laughing while she stretched my cheeks. She used to do this when I was younger, and that joke had been an attempt to provoke her to do it again.
I grabbed her hands and watched her as she sat on my stomach. Still holding her hands, I sat up. Our faces were just an inch away.
“Geez,” she said.
“Now that I’m looking at you this close, I can finally see how you’ve grown even more…” I let my words linger.
She lifted an eyebrow.
I squeezed her hands. “Even more…beautiful.”
She abruptly stood up and made a show of dusting her shorts. “I’ll make you some coffee.” Without giving me a hand to stand up, she went behind the counter and began to boil water.
She set a cup of black coffee in front of me. I waited for her to make coffee for herself and sit across from me like she usually did, but she just went back behind the counter and started wiping the cups. I watched her in wonder for a while.
“Hey, thanks for letting me keep your bike while you were away,” I said.
“I thought it was better if somebody took care of it. You’ve actually done me a big favor.”
“I see. Have Makki visited you? She told me that she wanted to see you.”
“Makki? Nope. Only Ojii-san dropped by.”
I sipped some coffee and watched the swaying grass outside. With only the sound of the hand cloth rubbing the porcelain cups and the clink of the cups when Alpha put them down, this day was turning out to be one of those days when I usually had an afternoon nap.
“Makki has also grown bigger. I can’t treat her like a little sister anymore,” I said. “In five years—no, three—I’m sure she will grow into a beautiful woman. She will make a good wife.”
“I see,” Alpha said.
I watched her reaction, and I saw, even though it was small and fleeting, the way one corner of her mouth twitched.
“Alpha, why don’t you bring a cup over and join me here? I want to hear about your travel. I also want to tell you that I did my own traveling while you were gone.” I stopped. Alpha was looking at the clock. “What’s wrong?”
“Actually, um, I need to close shop early today. I have an errand to attend to,” she said. “Sorry, Takahiro.”
I looked away and giggled. I knew it was kind of mean of me to talk fondly about another girl in front of her. I always made sure that my actions indirectly told her that she was the most special girl in my life. I felt guilty but relieved at the same time. I guess I had to pack up for now.
“Alright. I’ll visit again.”
“Sorry…” she said.
Usually, she would see me off from the shop’s door. It did not happen today. I laughed. What a jerk I was. Man, I was falling for her more and more.
I had arranged with Alpha to meet at the shrine at Dai no Hara today. Her words were, “I have something that I want to show Takahiro no matter what. I would like you to come. I will be waiting.” Something she wanted to show me. My imagination flew off into the night that had started everything. Her naked body in the mirror. Her red face and ears. I shook my head. No way. Alpha wouldn’t be like that. I lightly knocked the steering wheel with my forehead.
Alpha was waiting beneath a thick clump of bamboo trees just beside the torii to Dai no Hara. She was wearing a simple yellow blouse and blazer, long skirt, black leggings, and boots. On her head was a cute beret that matched her outfit. When she saw my truck trudging down the dirt road, she called out to me. I raised my hand in reply.
“I’m so glad! I was beginning to think you weren’t going to come,” she said.
“I told you I would make it. So, what did you want to show me?”
“Well, I think he’ll be here soon.”
He! Wait, wait, wait! What do you mean by he? “S-someone is coming?”
“Umm, I don’t know if you would call it coming, but well yeah.”
Damn it. Karma was too fast. It had not been one month yet since I played that little prank on her. Was this payback for that time? Though I must admit. It was not farfetched that she had met a nice guy during her travel whom she became close to. Alpha was beautiful. It was more unthinkable that nobody had gotten interested in her.
I sighed. No use in worrying. Alpha had not told me yet if the guy was her boyfriend. I would test the water and judge from her reaction whether my case was already hopeless. I got off my truck and stood beside her.
“About the café, it’s done up more properly than I thought,” I said. “I’m really surprised.”
“Ah, actually, it’s only stacked up with boxes and such. It’s forbidden to lean on the walls.”
“Is that so?” We continued to talk about trivial things. “Alpha, would you like to get in the car? You’re dressed too lightly for this kind of weather.”
“Um, but if I’m not outside, the person we’re waiting for won’t notice me.”
“Hey, who’s coming? Someone I know?” I did not mean to sound apprehensive, but I could not help it.
“I don’t think so, but you’ll be surprised for sure. Just wait and see.”
We both watched the gray sky and let the time pass by. The temperature plummeted fast as the day got late. I glanced at Alpha. She rubbed her hands together and breathed on her palms.
“It’s really cold after all,” I said.
“I’m still okay for now. Well, this is a bit unprepared of me.”
“I’m getting a little chilly, too.”
“Ah, then shall we get in the car?”
I did not hesitate. I stepped closer to her, opened my overcoat, and wrapped her with it from behind. She stiffened for a moment. She looked up at me. I could see the red tip of her ear.
“Just the front…a bit cold.”
She was quiet for a while, deciding how to respond. “I see.”
“You used to do this to me when I was small.”
“You smell the same.”
I felt her weight collapsing on my chest as if she was giving up. “Yeah.”
“Are you still cold?”
The plane zoomed in too close to where we were. I was astounded. I saw that kind of aircraft before in Sensei’s library. If I was correct, it was called a T-6. For two minutes, it maneuvered above us. I could not take my eyes away from it.
“He said that the trees of this shrine are a good landmark,” Alpha said. “And I thought, ‘I want to show this to Takahiro, too.’”
“I want to see it up close,” I murmured.
“Yeah. One of these days.”
The plane finally flew off into the distance, shaking its wings which Alpha pointed out as the pilot’s way of saying goodbye.
“Alpha, thank you.”
“You’re welcome.” She leaned her head on my cheek. We stayed until the sunset.
I hung my overcoat on her shoulders as I escorted her to the car. Alpha curled into the passenger seat and eventually fell asleep. I tucked a loose strand of her hair behind her ear and drove as carefully as I could into the calm and cold evening.
I had done my best to gather what I could. For these past two years, I had chased any leads I could use. Sensei saw me off with a ceremony of sorts, telling me that she had nothing to teach me anymore. In bio-robotics theory, she said that I was now standing side by side with the best. I bowed in front of her and gave her my gratitude.
“I will make my dream come true, Sensei. Thank you for all the time you have shared with me.”
“I’m very proud you’ve been my student, Takahiro. I’m looking forward to your accomplishments in the advancement of bio-robotics.”
“I won’t let you down.” I hugged her.
“Here, take this with you.” Sensei took out from her drawer a bracelet. Hanging from it was a circular chip painted with her sigil: an abstract impression of the running man. From her pocket, she took out a pack of cigarette and a lighter. “And this is for boring days.” She pulled my face to her and kissed my forehead. “Take care of Alpha for me.”
“You don’t need to ask,” I said. It was the last time I saw Sensei.
I took Alpha to the old dock. When I was a kid, she had brought me here to relax. It had been the first time I heard from her that she could not eat fish. Another panel of the bridge had sunk down into the water. The encroaching lake reflected back the languid setting of the sun. The Cordillera hid its top under a blanket of white fog. Alpha was thrilled that I invited her.
“Ahhh, it’s so cool here,” she said. “It’s strange, isn’t it? I think so whenever I come here.”
“It’s not like there’s much of a breeze. And it isn’t shady.”
“Yeah.” She was really having fun. I could not do anything but bask in her aura.
“How long has it been since we came here? Two years? Longer? I lent you my scooter.”
“Yeah.” I sighed. So, it was finally today. The day that I reached the borderline between our worlds.
“It seems like only yesterday. You were so scared of driving.”
“And now, you’re the one taking me out for a drive.”
“Yeah.” I drank my canned juice and laid it down on the pavement. “Alpha.”
“Hmm?” She removed her slippers and sat next to me on the edge of the panel.
“I’m going to travel. I cannot satisfy my fascination with machines if I stay here. Around here, there’s a limit to how much I can learn about them. I think it’s a good opportunity.”
She faced me excitedly as if what I had said was the best idea in the world. “It is! That’s so great! You’re really growing up!”
“To tell the truth, I wasn’t sure about it. But I decided to go.”
“I think it’s a good idea.” She looked up, imagining what I would be in the future. “When you get back, you’ll be a real adult.”
“Yeah. But I don’t think I’m going to be coming back.”
“Huh? W-what do you mean?”
“I think…I’m probably gonna be on the road most of the time.”
She slouched and went to sit facing the water. “To the west? Where?”
“There’s an old factory a bit past Mt. Fuji. I think I will stay there for a while.”
“When are you going?”
“The day after tomorrow. There’s a bus leaving from Kinagasa.”
She was smiling, but her smile did not reach her eyes. “That’s sudden.”
“Now that I’ve made up my mind, I think if I don’t go soon, I probably won’t go at all.”
“Yes, you’re right.” She puffed up her chest and exhaled. “That’s right! Well, I’m going to miss you.”
“If I can, if I have some spare time, I’ll try to visit.”
“Good.” She looked away from me for a moment, and when she turned back to me, her eyes betrayed what she would do next. She hugged me so tightly my breath caught in my throat. “What can I say? The only thing I’m good at is waiting. So, I’ll wait for my little brother. I’ll wait as hard as I can.”
“Yeah.” We were like that for a while until I broke the silence. “Alpha, did you bring your camera?”
“Yes.” She took it out from her pocket and put it on my palm.
“Let’s take a picture.”
“Okay! Oh, yes, I remember we haven’t had one together yet.”
“Yeah.” I moved to her side and leaned towards her. I felt her stiffen for an instant when our shoulders touched. “Ready?” She nodded and looked at the lens. Then I kissed her as I clicked the shutter.
I kissed her again and clicked. I did this while pushing forward. She supported herself from falling with her hands. She could not move away from me anymore. I kissed her, and kissed her, and kissed her, up to the point where I did not pull away. I kept our lips from separating. I placed the camera down and searched for her hands. I grabbed them, soft as freshly baked pudding. Her mouth tasted like tea, and there was sweetness to it as if she had eaten sugar. I was surprised when she put one of her arms around my neck, the same arm she had used to hug me a while ago as an older sister. Right now, I was her man and her my woman.
She locked her arms behind my back and buried her face in my neck. “Don’t go! I love you! I love you more than anything in this world. All this time I’ve been a coward. All this time I have only been forcing myself to see you as a brother. But it is not the truth. I have been crazy for you for a very long time! So please stay! Stay with me!” She kissed me. “I cannot bear to part with you.”
Maybe it was wrong of me to make the confession on the day I said goodbye. The truth was I was expecting her to be confused. I was assuming her to agonize about my action and think about why I did it. During that time, I would quietly leave.
“It will never work out. I don’t want you to see me grow old while you stay young and beautiful beside me.”
She glared at me. “That’s just your opinion! How about mine?” She was mad. It was my first time seeing her like that. Her small fists were bunched up on my back, crumpling the fabric of my shirt. Her face was gleaming with tears, and her beautiful mouth that I would like to kiss again was twisted into a snarl. “Why do you have to leave? I can’t think of a reason why. Engines? New learning? Are all these more important than me?”
I wanted to tell her my reason for leaving. I wanted to promise that I would come back. But the pain of a broken promise was worse than one that remained unsaid. I was headed to an unknown road, blindly groping for a way to achieve my goal. I was not sure if I could succeed. I did not like the idea of making her wait forever for nothing.
“Alpha, I want you to be happy. There are still a lot of places you have not seen yet. I want you to have the freedom to go there anytime you want. We are the same. I want to explore the world and leave something behind for the future generation. And you, I want you to remember me as I am now, as the young boy who has fallen in love with you.”
“You want me to be happy, huh?” She got up and pushed me. “Then why are you hurting me!”
I could not call out to her as she ran away. I stayed there looking at the sky until there was no light left. “I guess I’ll be walking back home.”
I panicked when I saw my truck at the same location where I had left it earlier. I was sure she would use it and leave me behind. I got in and frantically searched for Alpha. It did not take too long. I found her crouched over her knees, sobbing under a tree.
“Alpha,” I said, hunkering in front of her. “Let’s go home.” I took her hand, but she pulled it away. She was still mad at me. Sighing, I picked her up and hefted her onto my arms.
“Takahiro! Wait!” She struggled, pushing me away, slapping me with her small hands.
“You’re so light,” I said. I carried her to the front seat. After making sure that she was in a comfortable position, I fastened her seatbelt and got in myself.
We drove in silence.
“Should I carry you inside?” I said once we arrived at her house. Her response was a glare.
She got off and went to the door without looking back. I stood watching her until I could not take it anymore. Even though I had already decided that I would not make any promises, the weight of seeing her hunched back and bowed head pushed my body into motion. I reached out from behind her and confined her in my arms.
I kissed her ear and whispered, “I’ll come back, so wait for me.” When she did not show any sign of responding, I said, “I love you.”
I slowly headed for my truck. As I opened the door, she ran to me and threw herself in my chest. She grabbed my face and kissed me.
Though still hurting, she forced herself to smile. “I’ll be waiting. However long it takes, I will be here. It’s a promise.”
“It’s a promise.”
She watched me as I drove off. Now whether I succeeded or not, I had no choice but to come back.
I first went to the cities to find information not about robotics or artificial life forms, but about the Misago. I learned a lot, but most of them were bordering folklore. I even found evidence of the Misago being worshipped in a small, extinct village in the submerged province of Nara.
I lived for a year in a community of old scientists and engineers that were still hoping for the reemergence of human proliferation. Ironically most of the people in the community were living alone. I asked around if they knew anything about the Water Gods, but they had dismissed these anomalies as mutant plants brought about by the sudden and irreversible geological shifting.
“It’s the ocean soil that is now on the surface and the surface soil underneath,” said Dr. Akiko Mikasa, a biologist. “They are strange because there was no record of their existence when they were still underwater. You know how we are. We make big things out of small things that we can’t explain.” She had already accepted this as a fact. Though I could sense in her a lingering frustration from not being able to make sense of the Water God’s existence.
The people found it weird that all I asked was either about the Misago or the Water Gods. I already lost count how many times they had asked me why. I told them the same lie over and over: I was trying to write a book. Most of the time it stopped them from prying, but sometimes I could just smile sheepishly when they pointed out how bad I was in grammar to be writing a book.
“A book, huh,” Aoshi-san asked me one time. He was an astrophysicist who owned the apartment I was staying at. We were drinking beer outside, watching his daughters play with fireworks. “All the people here are scientists, you idiot. No one believes you. They just ride along because you’re the type to never back down even if cornered.”
“That hurts, Aoshi-san,” I said as I drank from my can. He could be frank with me about it because he treated me like his own son.
“We all know what you are after. People like you come once in a while.” He got up and went to the house. When he came back, he placed a tattered notebook in front of me. “This was compiled by one of my ancestors. Hope it helps.” He sat back in his chair and chugged his beer. He did not talk for a few minutes. “Takahiro, the last eight pages of that notebook contain the author’s regrets. If you don’t want to be discouraged, don’t read them.”
“I’ll remember that.”
The notebook was a detailed log of a man searching for the Misago. I studied it and memorized its contents. From the first page to the last. I did not listen to Aoshi-san’s warning. I did not care. Nothing could sway me at this point.
I know she’s there, but all I can see is a blurred silhouette. My eyes can’t see well anymore. She’s in front of me, but I’m already too old to do anything about it. She is so near, and yet I feel like this is the farthest she’s ever been from me. What else can I do but to push her away? It hurts so bad, but this is for the best. I hope that she never comes back. I hope that she leaves this old fool for good.
I put the notebook down. It was a tragedy, but instead of discouraging me, it reinforced my notion that the Misago was very kind.
Finding where the Misago lived proved to be difficult. The land had changed a lot compared to what it was in the time of Aoshi-san’s ancestor. I found some of the landmarks he had described in his log, but seven out of ten of them were gone. I decided to start my own journal, recording the things I saw at the present time. I recorded the events that happened as I walked deeper into the Koajiro forest. I drew new plants and animals I saw for the first time. Every afternoon, I compared my notes to what I had learned from the old man’s log. It took me two months to realize that I could not use that learning anymore. I was grateful for the clues, but as I went down even deeper into the Misago’s territory, I found them becoming more and more useless.
In the next few months, I taught myself to hunt game and gather edible fruits, leaves, bulbs, and mushrooms. I baited birds with torn pieces of mushrooms. The birds would ignore the poisonous ones and ate the edible ones. I learned how to fish, and I found a place near a river for that. The river was not too wide, but it was calm, a sign that it was very deep. It did not fail to provide me with fish. I continued my search along the river. The Misago would have had built her home near a body of water. And I knew that fish was one of her primary food. The first time we met, two things had burned themselves into my memory: her fanged smile and the wriggling fish she was dragging by the gills with two fingers.
I kept up with this optimistic thinking for a while. Months passed. I hunted, gathered, and fished. I did not stay in one place for more than one night. I traveled from morning till evening, just stopping to eat. The sun and the moon were my compasses. I missed counting some days, so I depended on the change of season to track the year. And just like that, three winters came and went ever since I left home.
Under the canopy of endless darkness, I often saw the Milky Way I used to watch with Sensei on clear nights. It was beautiful, unreachable, and everlasting, like Alpha, like the one I loved. I filled my notebooks with her images I drew painstakingly. I danced with her in my dream. I laughed with her and chatted with her as I had done in the past. I held her hands and kissed her and told her I loved her. This I would always do before I slept.
One afternoon, as I was gathering mushroom, the sky turned gray. Thick clouds rumbled over my head, and they looked close enough to touch. The day before birds had flown south in a big group. I had expected that a storm was coming. I took refuge in the crevice of a big old tree just as the rain began to pour. I thought that it was the typical storm that I experienced annually. But nothing could have prepared me for what came next. I felt the ground tremble and heard a loud rolling sound coming from the north. My eyes widened when I saw it. It was a wall of water twice the height of the tallest spruce tree in the forest rushing over towards me. I just knew I was about to die.
I woke up from the tremendous pain in my stomach. I reached out and felt something hard protruding from it. When I looked at my hand, I saw blood. A broken branch had impaled me. I lost consciousness again.
I felt something touching my lips the second time I woke up. A hand gently lifted my head. I realized it was a cup at my lips and there was water in it. The shadow tipped the cup ever so slightly to let me drink. Swallowing was painful, and I coughed up the water on more than two occasions. The shadow whispered something into my ear, but I could not make out what it was saying. I nonetheless tried to drink more until I fell asleep.
It was the same thing over and over. I did not have any idea how long I kept doing it, but whenever I woke up, the shadow was there holding the cup of water to my lips. I drank from the container and managed to say thanks when I could.
One time I heard sounds of patting on the ground. When I opened my eyes, I saw the shadow compacting the soil around a sapling. I did not understand what the sapling was for. I was not that strong yet to keep my lids open. Before I succumbed to sleep, I noticed something curious. The shadow was smiling at me.
I finally got the energy to remain awake for short periods of time, but I still could not eat solid food. The shadow tried to feed me once. I disgorged it. The shadow cleaned me up. It was then that I learned who it was. Her face, her hair, her eyes. The shadow that had been nursing me back to health was the girl I was searching all this time. It was the Misago. I cried. Out of relief, out of joy, I was not sure. But when I saw her familiar figure, I could not stop my tears from falling. Finally. Finally, I found her.