On a dazzling afternoon, two girls in black uniforms climbed over the fence of St. Loudon's Academy For Girls, which it was forbidden to leave without permission. They were Itsuki and Risa. The held hands, laughing, happy about having sneaked out of lessons. They had nowhere in particular to go in this tiny town, though. With no other choice, they headed for a convenience store on the edge of town.
A single middle-aged man stood boredly behind the till. He was the shop's owner, who had turned the unpopular bar owned by his parents into a minor chain of convenience stores. Risa, avoiding his gaze, tried to steal pink nail polish from amidst the rows of merchandise. Itsuki grabbed her hand.
"Why? You're always doing this."
"I guess that time's over," Itsuki said, half-jokingly. Her smooth black hair shone in the afternoon sunlight that spilled through the glass window. Risa didn't understand what Itsuki meant, but it made her want to obediently put the item back on the shelf. Itsuki always turned out to be right in the end.
"Anyway, I have money," Itsuki whispered into Risa's ear, as though revealing a secret. It was the money she got from selling Aya's photo to Risa. Hearing "money", Risa's face brightened.
"Let's go to the restaurant, then!"
Risa hooked her arm through the tall Itsuki's wheat-coloured one, and the two ran out like lovers.
After greedily eating a strawberry parfait, Risa, her elbows on the table, applied nail polish to her small nails.
"Ah, I can't do it right."
Risa was clumsy. Her clumsiness made her seem like she couldn't be left alone, and Itsuki thought that the men probably felt that, too.
"Give it here. I'll do it for you."
Itsuki took Risa's hand, carefully painting her nails like blooming flowers. Risa stared hard at Itsuki's face. The face Itsuki made when she was focused intently on applying nail polish was Risa's favourite thing in the whole world, even if all she knew of the "world" was the academy and this tiny little town.
"I wonder how many times I've had you do this for me."
"When someday I open a nail salon, you have to come every day. I'll make sure your nails are always cool and sparkly. I love your nails. They have such a pretty shape."
"I think yours are prettier."
Itsuki was more mature than the other girls, and gave the mysterious impression of a small, azure bird to anyone who saw her. Risa glanced at Itsuki and let out a sigh.
She always wants to talk about that, Itsuki thought, knowing right away. But today, Itsuki pretended not to notice Risa's gaze. Just like yesterday, and the day before, and the day before that, Itsuki wanted to object. And then she broached a subject that Risa didn't much feel like discussing.
"You're getting married as soon as you graduate from this place, right? It's all settled, isn't it? Isn't the guy rich?"
"That's just what my parents decided for me." Risa's face clouded slightly.
"But you've been to see him?"
"Yeah, but... I don't know. My dad says the company isn't doing well, and my mother was crying... They're sending me to this school with such high tuition fees, and there's not really anything I want to do in the future. So I think, you know, maybe it doesn't really matter...." Risa said casually, the sunlight streaming through the window illuminating the pretty nails that Itsuki had painted pink with white flower designs. "But to be honest, I want to marry someone I really love. You get it, right?" Risa didn't often voice her true feelings. It was what she felt about the reality before her.
"I suppose so," Itsuki answered truthfully."
"What, is there someone you like? Who is it?"
Itsuki shrugged. "That's not what I mean. I just have this feeling that one day I'm going to have a painful romance."
Risa was startled by Itsuki's unexpected words. She really is much more mature than me, she thought, with a twinge of jealousy. But she felt like, if she admitted that, she would drift further away from Itsuki.
"You mean a tragic romance? That sounds amazing. You know, like in that painting," she said, in a slightly joking tone.
"You mean Ophelia?"
"I want to know what it's like to drown in love and float in the water like that. And I want to dream. Of love. It would break me. So badly I couldn't breathe. That's the kind of love I want." Itsuki made love feel so vivid.
But Risa was in love with Aya, wasn't she? Itsuki thought, smelling the unique scent of nail polish, as Risa made a youthful face dreaming of love. Risa just wanted to talk about Aya again. She had always gone along with it, but for some reason she didn't feel like it right now.
Aya going missing made Itsuki slightly happy. Everyone was so obsessed with her. It wasn't like she cared, but just her presence made everyone act funny. This world was so small, like being inside a goldfish bowl, the fish sensitive to the slightest movement from the outside world. As she considered this, Itsuki finally realised, So that's it - Aya is from the outside world. She was outside the goldfish bowl.
Risa took her eyes from her nails and leaned forwards. "Hey, you remember the day of our middle school induction ceremony?" Risa finally brought up herself. No choice, huh, Itsuki thought, resignedly. The first day they joined. The girls stood in front of the bulletin board that showed which classes they had been put in. It was when spring was still new, and the blossoms were falling from the cherry trees. It must have been since then that everyone had been under Aya's spell, Itsuki recalled.
Back then, St. Loudun's Academy For Girls had been engulfed in a soft southeasterly breeze, she seemed to remember. The academy had been built on the highest hill in town, so you could look down over the entire area if you climbed the chapel tower.
There were all kinds of trees planted around the school - pagoda, acacia, ginkgo, cherry, poplar, and plane - and the flowerbeds were full of small plants that flowered with each season. Spring had been late coming that year, and as soon as they bloomed they were chased by the yellow flowers of dandelions. A white carpet of cherry petals fell like snow from the school gate to the main building, dandelions peeking out here and there like yellow hepatica (though they of course weren't), decorating the girls' black shoes over black socks. It seemed like God had been announcing that it was a very special day.
It had been six years ago. That first day of their middle school lives, all of the new and old students' eyes had been drawn to one girl. That girl was Aya. Her thin, straight, glossy hair hung to her waist, a white camellia hair ornament in it, her slender body wrapped in a brand new uniform, like a blue flower, stealing everyone's gaze. No one could blame anyone for already having fallen for her.
"Was she at this school?"
"I'd never forget a girl that pretty if I'd seen her."
"She must have come from another school."
"Yeah, it's like she's come from the outside world..."
The countless voices of people around her sounded like the wings of bees searching for honey, but the girl simply stared at the class list on the bulletin board. Aya seemed different to the rest of them, and for the first time Itsuki realised that most of the people in their world were the same way.
Soon after all of them assembled in the classroom the bell rang, and the teacher - a nun in her grey uniform - came in.
"I am your head teacher, and also one of the nuns who works in the chapel. My name is Taruho Saginomiya, but you may call me Sister."
The nun had well-proportioned features, but didn't seem the kind to be liked by anyone. She completely lacked any human warmth. She picked up the attendance register, opening her hard, cold, thin lips. Each time she called a name, they all responded. Everyone was in attendance. Finally, the turn came for her to call the beautiful girl's name. Everyone tried hard not to miss it. And then they all carved her name - Aya Tsukimori - into their heards.
Everyone in the class ruminated over her name. It alone made their hearts leap. But, as though quickly erasing the aftertaste from her mind, the nun opened her textbook and announced that she was also their language teacher. She quickly began their lesson on modern literature.
The nun began telling a long tale of the literature from a long ago era, when east first met west.
Until the Meiji era, young people couldn't truly sing about love. The country did have love songs as part of its traditions, but most of it was in vain, and they were simply taught the "form" of love songs, practising them in shape only despite never having been in love. This meant that people would sing imaginary songs of romance masterfully, but when they truly fell in love and tried to put it into a song, they were bound to use only the groundless "form" they had been taught.
They wanted to tell of real love, without being restricted. Starting with modern times, the youth began thirsting for it. They began to think that western poetry was what sang of true love, and broke down the confines of the old songs, and so began translating western poetry in order to create new ones. The first to do this returned to Japan, leaving his lover in Germany, and amidst the expectations of his family and military comrades had to marry, and was cruelly forced to turn her away when she came to see him - this was Mori Ogai. In order to make up for this regret, Ogai created the first true anthology telling of love in the whole country, a collection of translated western poetry - Omokage. That is why all of the lovers in the anthology, in every single poem, are on the other side of the sea or in the land of the dead at the edge of the sea. For example, it also contains a poem about Ophelia from Shakespeare's Hamlet.
That was the poem called "Ophelia's Song" in the textbook. All she added was that the poem had a special meaning to everyone, and then called Aya's name.
"Aya? Please read out the Ophelia poem from the textbook."
All of the students were excited at Aya being called out. They had all wanted to hear Aya's voice recite the love song as they had listened to the nun's story.
"Okay." Aya stood up. The students held their breath, straining their ears so as not to miss the first sounds to pass her lips.
How should I your true love know,
From another one?
By his cockle hat and staff,
And his sandal shoon.
Itsuki followed the words along in the textbook as Aya read, and wondered which was the true lover, how one would know, how you could tell them apart by a hat, staff and shoes, pondering the meaning of the poem written in old language, and then realised that Aya was wearing a shell hair ornament. If Aya was Ophelia, that meant that her lover would know that it was her by that ornament, Itsuki thought calmly.
But the other girls were different. Her voice, pure and clear like a primula, seeped into each and every one of their hearts. That was probably the moment when the girls first felt the concept of love stir their hearts, just like the youth of the Meiji period in the distant past when they first heard this poem. It was also the first time Itsuki had seen lots of people instantly and simultaneously fall in love. Just like a curse, Itsuki thought, slightly afraid.
Itsuki seemed to be the only one who wasn't under the curse. But now, the moment she thought that might not be true, a fire quietly lit inside her heart. One day, the flames Itsuki fanned in the depths of her soul would burn her. But at the time, itsuki couldn't even imagine the future that might come to pass.
Six years had passed since then. Being around Risa, with her innocent love for Aya, made Itsuki feel complicated things. Itsuki was interested in Risa. Risa was unreliable, like a round, shiny stone washed up on a wave. She was a master at wrapping people around her little finger, too, but you couldn't hate her. She was the kind who had irritated her when they first met, but they had been together for the whole last six years. Does that make us best friends? Itsuki wondered.
Risa put both elbows on the table, staring enraptured at the nails Itsuki had done for her. The waitress asked if she would like a refill of her coffee. Risa said yes, still looking at her nails.
"I'd like a photo of Aya," Risa murmured to herself, sighing onto her nails.