...Hey, you heard that just now, right? What was that sound? A cat meowing? No. ...It was like a person's voice, wasn't it? A woman's voice. ...Didn't it sound in pain? It was scary. It sounded pained, like something was being torn from her body...
Come to I think about it, where's Dad? Hmm, I guess he's still at the neighbourhood meeting. On meeting days he always looks so scary... I don't like it. Ah... Sorry. Y-yeah, got it, I'm going to sleep now. But... what was that voice-like thing before? It... must have been a cat. It... must have...
...I had a dream. It was of my hometown, from when I was I guess in elementary school. One night, starting to fall asleep in my futon, I heard something like a scream in the distance and woke up. It was only for a second, but... I couldn't tell whether it belonged to an animal or a human. It sounded like a horrible scream. I was scared, so I sleepily went into my parents' room...
Even though it happened long ago, it wasn't a good memory. Particularly on sleepless summer nights, it was one of the horrible dreams I had. Living in a tiny, cheap apartment, I opened the window in an attempt to at least let in some fresh air, but far from feeling refreshing, the gentle breeze reminded me a little of my hometown.
The place where I was born and raised is a small village in the remote countryside, far away from my current residence in Tokyo, surrounded by sea and mountains. The village is situated in a valley known as Tsukuyomi Valley. "Tsukuyomi" is at first glance a romantic-sounding name, but the faintly dark-feeling atmosphere of the place even in the daytime, and the small shops and village meeting places, with rows of houses, squashed between the mountains feels far from romantic.
You can get to town by rail, but that is the only means of transportation there is. The station, settled between two tunnels, still has only one train running through it. When I was at high school in the next town over, if I missed the first train I would definitely be late, so it was a real hassle.
The verdant, tranquil countryside... Well, I suppose you could say that, but to put it simply, because of Tsukuyomi Valley, the neighbouring villages have been abandoned one by one, and now it's just an inconvenient little village.
I'm sure I had that dream about my hometown because a few days beforehand I heard from my parents. They ran a general store in the village in Tsukuyomi, and I hadn't had a phone call from them in ages.
"You're graduating from university in a year's time. Have you decided what job you're going to do yet?"
"Uh, no, I guess not yet."
"You're the same as always. Maybe we went too easy on you when you were growing up because you were our second son. Which reminds me - have you got yourself a girlfriend yet? Taniyama's son is in the year below you, isn't he? It looks like he's got a girlfriend at university, and he said that next time he would bring her along to say hi. To look at you you'd think you would be able to do better, but ah well, it doesn't look like you have anything to tell me..."
My mother fussed about with her parent's worries for a while, but what she wanted me for was the twelfth anniversary of my uncle's death. There was going to be a memorial service, so she wanted me to come home for obon.
Family ceremonial occasions are important events for the village. Since long ago, when the houses were built, everyone knew their neighbours... No, even since before that, everyone in Tsukuyomi Village was like family, and had long-lasting customs that involved giving the dead cordial memorial services. Because of this, they had built a special memorial tower, something rarely seen in country villages.
Now that I thought about it, I should have asked my family about it at new year's, but I completely forgot that his twelfth anniversary was coming up until the summer holiday came around. I had intended to spend long holidays back at home anyway, and arranged for a ticket for the train back to Tsukuyomi Village right away, looking forward to it.
For poor students, the two trips home a year in the summer and winter are tough on the wallet. When I told my university friends and lab acquaintances that I was going back to Tsukuyomi Village they praised me so earnestly, but it's not like I'm incredibly close to my family or anything. They were important to me, of course, but what made me yearn for Tsukuyomi village more than that was that my childhood friend Ryoko was there.
Ryoko was the only daughter of the family that managed the restaurant next to our general store, which they had owned for a long, long time. We were the same age and had been to the same elementary, middle and high schools, and our families had been good friends since we were young. We referred to each other as "Toshi" and "Ryoko", and we had grown up as great friends, just like brother and sister.
She stopped calling me "Toshio" when we were young, and she always seemed more mature at heart than everyone else. The two of us spent our days with our other friend, Nobukuni, at the beach and running through the hills. Her big, round eyes, her slender figure that suited miniskirts well, her glossy hair... She loved talking, and was incredibly charming, a kind girl who seemed to have a strong heart, the town idol whom everyone loved. I did too, naturally.
During our adolescence, she was such a little girl. Whenever I saw her I would call her names, saying, "Your chest is so small!" but in truth, as the years went by she gradually got prettier and cuter, until I felt embarrassed for ever having said it.
It was the day of our induction ceremony to the high school in the neighbouring town, both of us coming from the same middle school, that had a really high number of students going on to university. The first time I saw her in her school uniform, even amidst the gaggle of new students from the town gathered at the high school she stood out, and I could see her beauty.
However, when the time came for Ryoko to graduate from high school, while I and our other childhood friends wanted to go on to a university in the city, she chose a different path. She decided to stay in Tsukuyomi Village to help out with the family business. Ryoko's mother had already passed away, and she had been helping her father and older brother, but around the time she was choosing what to do, her father collapsed. She was always thinking of her family, and I guess she was so worried about him that she had to do it.
"You're not going to university after all, then?" I asked Ryoko when the deadline for submitting university applications was close. With her grades she would have easily been able to get into the same Tokyo university as me.
"Nope. I'm going to stay here. If I left home the cleaning and washing would never get done, because Dad and my brother are awful at it. We run a restaurant, so I'm not worried about them eating, but everything else does concern me. Besides, my dad wants to do everything by himself, but the doctor said he shouldn't over-do it... If the same thing happened to him as to my mother, it would be really sad," she said, closing her eyes, thinking about her family as usual. The way she stuck to the old ways was one of the reasons I'd fallen for her.
"You're cleverer than you look... so I'm sure you'll be able to get into the school you want," Ryoko said, looking up and peering into my eyes with a smile.
"'Cleverer than I look'? What's that supposed to mean?"
"Hahaha. So you've got to do enough study for both of us at that university in Tokyo. And you've got to tell me everything about what it's like there, okay?"
"On the phone and in letters?"
"I suppose so... Ah! You've gotta come home for the summer and winter holidays and tell me all about it, okay? Promise me!"
...I couldn't help it. Every time I thought about Ryoko I always ended up grinning; it was a bad habit of mine. Every year I went home for the summer holidays because I'd promised Ryoko I would. Because I wanted to see her. My mother always asking me on the phone whether I'd got myself a girlfriend in Tokyo was embarrassing. Since I'd come here, there were guys in my circle and at parties who seemed to have found girlfriends... But I hadn't found any girl I could love more than I loved Ryoko.
I had secretly made up my mind already. This year, I was going to tell Ryoko how I felt. We couldn't stay good friends forever. This year, we would become lovers... And if luck was on my side, there would be a promise beyond that...
I lay in my futon, thinking of Ryoko's cute smile, until eventually I fell into a deep sleep...