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『エルリ物語』・ Eruri Monogatari: The Last Dance

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Japanese Summer: 1・Suiting BGM: 1 2

 


 

 

 

When I was a child my father used to take me to the harbour on his days off. The century was still young but innocent it was no more. We used to sit on a bench on a little hill and looked down on the harbour of our capital city. Down there it was always a hustle and bustle. Countless people flood into each other, whirled around without touching their counterparts, walking off on their paths afterwards. The sounds of their wooden shoes could be heard up to our place, the never ending ups and downs of their voices. I will never forget this lovely mixture of men wearing traditional clothing but european hats.

Not far from this place an old instrument maker had his shop. Whenever the wind blew from the right direction, the plucking of the kotos he made sounded all the way to our bench. Thinking about my childhood I think of this place, the moments we, despised of summer's heat or winter's coldness, spend there together, while we became one with space and time. Never before and after I ever happened to feel an inner peace such as up there.

It was a place of change, of coming and going. In this harbour the huge steamships docked. If one travelled to us this harbour was the first thing the arrivals would see. In Taishou 2 [1], the first year of the great war – I was no more than 12 years old – the harbour basin was crowded with soldiers. They were shipped out into the world, to let them die for reasons I would not understand back then. For most of them it was a journey without return.

How did it feel for them, to travel out into an unknown distance? What hopes and wishes accompanied them? Were they scared? Or were they filled with joy?

Tokyo, just as well as Yokohama, already used to be cities of wild games and untamed life while preserving the charm of the countryside. Especially the older struggled to understand that the life they might have known had vanished due to the former Meiji reforms [2]. I grew up in a metropolis of two million inhabitants, touching the pulse of time. Up there on our hill though time seemed to stand still, as if someone had, just for us, stopped the course of the world.

Since then years have passed, yet the stories I have been told there, on said bench, have burned themselves irretrievably into my mind, stories from a distance, of travelled countries and met persons. He was an educated man, my father, he had seen more than most of those who lived with us ever would. Back then, in Taisho 2, still a child and of limited horizon, it appeared impossible to me that these things I held dear could ever change. I knew the years, I had already experienced them, yet I was far from understanding.

By now the war has long ended, the old instrument maker has moved away. There are no more soldiers to be seen. And also my father is no longer here.

“You must go”, Hanji whispers into my ear, so suddenly that she makes me jerk. Her voice carries the usual velvet-soft urgency. She is full of energy, but when isn't she? “You must go. Do you hear me?”

“I don't want to”, I mutter and close my eyes for a second, trying to fight down the uprising reluctance.

“You must.”

“Hanji.”

“Levi.”

With a soft sigh I clench my hands into fists. “This is not longer my world”, I say calmly. “And you should not be here.”

“Has it ever been yours?” She laughs, but the surrounding walls of the small garden house swallow it, since it does not resound at all.

“I don't know.”

“I suppose you have never left it in the first place.”

“What's that supposed to mean?”

“You've never given up your privileges, that's what I am trying to say. You were and always will be a part of the elite, just as I.”

“Leave me alone.”

“Oh, my dear, dear Levi”, she cheerfully continues. “You might dislike your destiny, but let me tell you, nothing lasts forever.”

 

YOU MIGHT DISLIKE YOUR DESTINY, YET LET ME TELL YOU, NOTHING LASTS FOREVER. THE SENSE AND PURPOSE OF THIS MATTER CAN IMPOSSIBLY BE REVEALED TO YOU BY NOW. JUST AS A FLOWER, LIFE UNFOLDS ITS BEAUTY ONCE IT BLOSSOMS, NOT DURING GROWTH. YOUR RELUCTANCE WILL FADE BEFORE LONG AND YOU WILL UNDERSTAND, HOW WE ALL WILL UNDERSTAND ONCE THE RIGHT TIME COMES ALONG. OR TO QUOTE GOOD OLD GOETHE: EVERY PLAY IS MERELY ABOUT THE PREDETERMINED FREEDOM OF OUR WILL COLLIDING WITH THE NECESSARY PATH OF THE WHOLE. YOU CAN CHOOSE TO GO WITH IT OR BE CARRIED AWAY BY FORCE, YET WHAT IS SUPPOSED TO HAPPEN WILL BE. IN THE END YOU WILL UNDERSTAND THAT ALL YOUR FEARS AND SORROWS WERE NEVER LEGITIMATE. WHO YOU ARE NOW YOU WILL NOT BE FOREVER. AND WHAT IS NOW IS ALREADY LYING IN THE PAST. DO YOU HEAR ME? LISTEN. EVERY SINGLE PERSON HAS HIS PLACE IN THIS WORLD. WHETHER YOU AGREE WITH IT OR NOT DOES NOT CHANGE ONE THING.

 

Silently I let my gaze wander through the dim twilight of the room, while I carefully try to listen. The sound of her voice has no origin. More than that it seems to come from inside of me.

“Instead of talking in riddles concrete pieces of advice would be more useful, don't you think?”, I say in a deep, sincere voice, but there is no answer. How typical of her. She always disappears when I need her the most.

Split seconds later I understand why. From outside I hear the silent, traipsing sounds of a woman. Little later the sliding door is opened and the face of my mother appears.

“Levi?” Her fingers clench around the frame of the paper covered wooden door. Brown, almost black eyes strike me. “There you are.” She sounds relieved. Reluctant laughter leaves her throat. “Out here in the cabin. I should have known.”

Instead of answering I look at her for a long time.

“Are you ready? Everybody is waiting for you.”

Without a word I look down my body. I am kneeling on the ground. Without any effort my hands rest on my knees. My body is covered under several layers of traditional clothes in plain, dark colours. Kimono. Hakama. Above all a haori. It is a night of formality and I have snuck out. I could not help it. It was either that or me running out into the night in an outbreak of deepest despair.

“Yes, mother.” My face does not show any movement. “I am ready.”

“Come join us.” With a loving smile she leans her head to one side. “Will you?”

“Everybody has gathered?”

“Yes. It is only you who is missing.”

“I am causing you trouble”, I state.

“It's not like that”, she replies. “But people asked for you.” She hesitates. “After all that's happened this year it is easy to be worried, isn't it?”

“Indeed it is. How is she?”

“Well, you know her.”

“She is angry.”

“Not angry. But she is not pleased either, as we all are. Come with me, Levi. Let us join the others.”

With a reluctant nod I turn away from her. “Go. I will follow you in two minutes. Just let me rest here a little longer.”

I can feel my mother watching me in this certain mixture of sensitivity and love that is so characteristic for her. Eventually she slips out of her shoes and enters the room. She kneels down next to me, carefully looking at me for a long time before she leans forward and breaths a kiss against my temples. Afterwards she raises and disappears into the night. Only the sound of her walking indicates her return to the main house. Motionlessly I watch er leave, before I close my eyes and take a deep breath to gather myself. After I have put on my mask for the evening I as well stand up and follow her.

 

The singing of the cicadas surrounds me like an all-infolding summer shadow. My wooden sandals I place next to the stone that leads to the entrance. One last time I gaze back into the garden, already swallowed by the nightly darkness. Only here and there I spot the light of a lonely lantern spending dim light, flickeringly broken only by the surrounding insects. One mosquito sits down on my neck and stings me. With a routined gesture I chase it away and enter the hallway, wooden and open to its surroundings. In a not so far away distance I sense the sound of human voices, incomprehensible still, just like a dream, yet cheerful and heated up by the weather and sake. With silent steps I follow down the hallway, passing closed sliding doors covered with the milk-white paper of my childhood, warmly enlightened by hidden lamps. The house is just as traditional as my family, a property of long history and tradition, build about one hundred years ago. When the first stone was placed here, Japan had still been isolated and locked away from the outer world. Since then change has ripped apart and washed away illusionary constants, shaping this country in a new form, taking, giving and sparing what could be removed.

I turn around a corner. The voices grow stronger. To my left side, just as long as the hallway I look into a huge hall, consisting of several rooms, joint by the removal of some sliding doors. Even the doors facing the garden have been removed, a natural decision considering the summerly hot temperatures. The floor has completely been covered with tatami. The wood is of dark, almost black colour and endlessly old. The breath of the past rests on the once crème coloured walls, turning into a deep grey. Through the opened doors I can see the lanterns in the garden. Even the wind shutters have been removed. From time to time a gentle breeze finds its way inside, only accompanied by the song of the cicadas.

As usual for these days there is hardly any furniture inside of the room. Forming a huge rectangular, the back facing the to the walls, are sitting the members of the host society, consisting of about twenty people. Every single one of them is known and familiar to me, since all of them belong to the family or work for us. My aunts, some distant cousins, my grandmother who seems to be as old as time itself, immortal, in contrary to the men of our family. Her laughter dominates the merry chatter of the others, covering us like a thin, transparent blanket. There are employees of the house and of our store, old friends of my father. Our trainee and protégée, Eren. Just as I they wear formal clothes; the men hakama and haori, the women kimono. Despite everything they act more informal than I had expected them to be. Some of them old a uchiwa called fan in their hands. In front of them I discover small wooden tables. Some carry drinks, some are empty. Here and there tea, sometimes sake. People exchange anecdotes and remember their shared past with the help of humour and laughter. No dinner has been served yet. They were probably waiting for me to join.

It is the 24th of august. The year: Taisho 12 [3]. Today in one week my sister will get married and leave the paternal house; tonights gathering is dedicated to her and her engagement. Just like me she will accept the social role that is considered hers, since we both come from an old, overall respected family. One says that a human is born to choose his own way, or, as Kant once wrote: To have the courage of his own understanding.

Freedom, though, has never been our fate. Freedom – it is a word that did not even have a meaning for me until I grew into adolescence. I did not need it and even if someone had offered it to me, I would not have understood. I have been produced to continue the path, a path chosen generations ago. We wander at the head of our ancestors, the heirs of a long line. The longer this line reaches back, the more the avoidance of the same will be punished. I, myself, know this too well. Barely 22 years old, I have long left my youth years behind. The expectations of my family rest upon my shoulders. To disappoint them would equal a failure of my entire existence.

Once I step into the room the conversations die for a split second. Gazes, carefully taking care not to stare too obviously touch me, while the owner of these eyes try to establish an aura of indifference. They stare while not staring and their gazes strike me, even though I do not let it show. Only my mother looks over to me, a warm smile on her lips.

HER LOVE FOR YOU REMAINS UNBROKEN, Hanji says. IT IS UNCONDITIONAL, AS THE LOVE OF A MOTHER TO HER CHILD OUGHT TO BE. SHE COULD HAVE CUT YOU OUT OF HER LIFE AFTER ALL THAT HAS HAPPENED. SHE COULD HAVE CHOSEN TO HATE YOU YET SHE CHOSE NOTHING OF THAT SORT.

She is like a saint, I think and still I know that she, of course, cannot be what I wish her to be. She is just as much a human as I cam. She makes mistakes. She fails, just like me.

“Where have you been?”

I lower my gaze. Next to my feet sits a young woman. She wears a silk kimono in the colours of the fading summer, her hair carefully coiffed and decorated. She looks at me with a severe expression. There is no pride in her gaze. Her face equals perfect self-restrain. The place next to her is empty.

“Outside”, I say, indifferently replying her gaze. Mikasa is her name. Barely grown out of high school she is my younger sister.

“They have already asked for you twice.”

Without answering I sit down next to her. On the table in front of me there is a bottle of cold sake and a mug. With gracious movements which do not reveal anything of her hidden anger she pours me some and I drink. The taste shows the usual rich- and sweetness. Nodding toward the others from time to time who greet me with drunken wholeheartedness I let my gaze wander around. At the end of the room, not far from the tokonoma, there is still one empty seat. It is the only one.

“He hasn't arrived yet?”, I ask.

“Who?” She raises her eyebrows and makes a face, but not without sorrow.

“Nobody”, I say hastily and take a sip of my drink. “Forget what I've just said.”

She does not reply anything, but I know her long enough to be aware of the fine judgement mechanisms which might hold court over my current behaviour right now. I myself have not been able to fully comprehend that matter yet. Silently waiting I sit at the head of the host society, thinking, waiting. From time to time I gaze over to the place not far from my mother, which appears strangely abandoned considering the omnipresent cheerfulness. Officially it serves my father's remembrance, but I did not use to care for such things ever since. It all started three weeks earlier, during Obon [4].

It was an unusual hot day, so hot that even the salarymen on Tokyo's streets tore off their jackets in an unobserved moment, rolling up the sleeves of their linen shirts. With angry rays the sun had singed whatever could not flee during the day, and the night as well did not bring any ease. The air seemed to burn. Only from far away the wind brought shreds of the singing over to our estate, which filled the land during the festival of the dead. Holding a fan in my hand, supporting my head with the other, I was lying on our living room's tatami, looking up into the sky, carefully watching the moon, when noise in the entrance hall indicated that Eren had returned from his nightly walk. As usual he brought the post with him from the store and it appeared that a potpourri of letters had been sent to us – at least that was what he shouted through the whole house. With his usual temperament he flew at my sister, who snuck away with him. I had heard them both when I jumped up and ran after them, since I wanted to ask Eren some things that considered our business, things that had occurred during the day, but when I arrived at the genkan, I found myself all alone.

On the ground, though, I noticed a small envelope. Apparently it had fallen out and been overlooked afterwards. I, for one, took it and froze once I had laid my eyes on the name. Akayama Shogo was written there in sober letters. My father. It had been months since we had received a letter addressed to him for the last time. The inside of the envelope was of surprisingly plane nature, since it was only a telegram.

 

Arrival in Yokohama on 24th. Sincerely, E. S.,

 

was everything that had been written there. I needed to read those few words several times to gain a certain sense out of them, and still they did not want to give up their mysteriousness. The return address stated the university of Heidelberg, which was, after I checked my atlas, to be located in southern Germany. Of course it was possible that my father had had contacts to his old research place during all these years, yet it seemed quite unlikely since he had never mentioned such thing in the first place. Uncertain what to think of this ominous message I therefore decided not to inform the rest of the family for the time being. Should an unexpected guest find his way into our home he should be welcomed with due attention. Until now though it seemed as if the telegram had been a misunderstanding or incorrect information. This strange E. S. who had contacted us was nowhere to be seen.

The sound of instruments brings me back to the here and now. Music starts, played on a shamisen by an incredibly beautiful woman wearing a black, skilfully ornamented silk kimono. The music starts slowly, in an almost shy manner, as if the notes would not dare to come out properly due to all those present. Yet once the first notes fill the room they increase in strength and expression. Shortly after a young woman joins her, not far from the host society at the head end of the room, in the little area in which nobody has been seated, and where she can unfold her elegance the most. According to her appearance and make-up she is merely a meiko, a geisha apprentice. To decide on her age is almost impossible because of the countless layers of make-up, but she can hardly be any older than Mikasa. Her kimono is of azure blue silk, her obi, decorated with a pearl string, set off in a complementary tone. The pattern reminds me of the sea, of the roaring waves and chilly foam. The thought alone refreshes me on this hot summer evening.

Once the music has started her limbs begin to move in the right rhythm. Her movements are flawless, her self-restrain almost reaching perfection. Once completely educated she will form a respectable geisha. With the help of a golden fan and her down to the earth long sleeves called furisode she tells us a story which is underlined by the shamisen player's singing, an old tale, yet, in contrary to usual, not a tale I am familiar with. The earthenware mug with sake resting in my hands I carefully listen to her music while my eyes drink up every of the meiko's carefully performed movements.

The song tells the story of a lonely wanderer, travelling through an never ending night. Lost in the woods he stumbles around, not longer able to distinct what originates from the real world or his mind. At the moment he starts to believe that he will not be able to reach his destination, he finds a cabin in the woods. It is inhabited. But the landlord does not want him inside, since he himself is still wandering in his very own night. Blind for the needs of his environment it takes its time until he can bring himself to truly care for the wanderer. Soon after a violent storm occurs, shaking both forrest and cabin. The two men seek shelter at the open fireplace and start a conversation that spins a line through the night, just as the moon in the starry sky. The time they have spent together eventually makes them realise that both their paths had been destined from the beginning to cross the other's one day and that both, since the day of their birth, have always existed in each other without knowing it. This knowledge releases the landlord from the ghosts of his past and the wanderer as well suddenly remembers his way. The storm ends and a new day begins. When both bid their farewell from each other, knowing that it will be forever, they are not griefing, because both have understood that they have never been truly separated and therefore cannot be separated in the future.

The performance ends and I find myself in the same position than before. My hands still hold the earthenware mug. I cannot move. The song as well as its lyrics have touched me in a way I can hardly comprehend. The content seems strangely foreign to me yet familiar at the same time. The words show a certain truthfulness but something inside of me shields me from their deepest meaning. Is this not the purpose and use of tales? They empower people, since they show what cannot be real.

I lower my gaze and let the early months of this year pass in front of my inner eye, recapitulating in a short amount of time all the things that have happened to me. I remember everything that had to end this year. As if someone had pushed a very thin needle in my chest, my heart shrinks. To ease the pain I take a big sip of sake.

“Let the past be the past”, Mikasa suddenly says next to me. She looks at me from the corners of her eyes. “This is not longer your life, Levi. Times change, and this time of yours is over.”

“Maybe.”

“Definitely. You must acknowledge this year as what it is.”

We look at each other. My lips form a thin line. “A year of change”, I say.

“That is correct. You saw yourself what it brought to you, all your swimming against the current.” She nods towards the middle of the room. “Revolution is for farmers and dreamers, not for us. Over all those ideas and dreams do not forget your place in this world, Levi, I beg you. Who loses himself is lost.”

With a little breath I place the mug back on the wooden table in front of me. My expression is completely unmoved. Nevertheless my heart beats heavily, half in anger, half due to the urge to defend myself. But there is no sense in doing so. No matter what I tell her, she would not understand. She does not have the same attitude as I do, not the same education.

She was not there.

Mikasa, who apparently notices my inner monologue, carefully watches me. “You will not meet them again, will you?”, she asks and she cannot hide the sorrow in her voice. I do not answer her.

 

Nobody else arrived during this evening and therefore the empty place I had arranged remained this way. Quite sure that the telegram had either been a joke or a false delivery I let the festivities pass. It would be the last party that my sister would witness as a member of this household.

Around midnight the guests depart and return to their homes. As usual after such huge gatherings I remain alone in the grand hall. My thoughts are still running wild, and sleep would not be able to find its way to me in this condition anyway. My mother kisses me goodnight with her usual tenderness, and Mikasa joins her soon after. Only Eren leaves without a word. He and I, we both know why.

I sit on the ground of the wooden hallway that frames the rooms, separating them from the environment in order to protect the house from wind and weather. The wooden storm shutters have been closed already, but a last one, right behind me, is still open. Next to stands a hand high lantern, made from paper and wood, spending weak but warm light. The cicadas, tireless in their actions sing their always same song. From the cloudless sky the stars gaze down on me. It is hard believe that hectic and happiness have filled this house only hours prior, if one now considers the omnipresent calmness. My father has probably sat at this very place when he was my age, and his father before him. Just as I they looked out in the endless blackness infolding the garden to my feet, sensed the schemes of the carefully cut trees in the darkness while listening to the silent murmur of the water feature.

“Kami-sama”, I whisper and, before even knowing it, smile. Those are the moments in which I become one with the entire world and yet I know that this cannot last forever. My fight is not over yet.

MY FIGHT IS NOT OVER YET.

Out of the blue the urge to stand up and run away grips me, out into the night, far away from this house, this family, everything that defines me and forms me, but I know that this cannot possibly be the solution for my torment and therefore I remain. Instead I reach into the arms of my kimono. I take out a novel written by Mori Ogai – The Wild Geese - and open it. It is a small, used and often read soft-cover that accompanies me ever since I had enlisted myself in Tokyo University. Silently I begin to read but after a few pages my concentration rapidly fades.

There is a rustling sound in the background. In the beginning I do not attach any particular meaning to it, only after it lasts for a while I look up and in the direction from which it occurs. It appears low like from a far away distance yet it seems to be very close. I feel as if I am not longer alone. The presence of something or someone is growing inside of me. A few seconds later I notice footsteps on stone ground. They lack the typical wooden sound of traditional shoes.

My heart starts to beat faster. With furrowed brows I look out in the night, waiting for the unknown. Even though I do not expect any danger my body stiffens before I know it. Then, slowly, very slowly, a man's body appears in the night. He approaches from the entrance gate which I considered to be locked by now and does not seem to be aware of the fact that he has already been noticed. With the fascination of a child he steps in the middle of the garden, carefully, as if he knew about the unrighteousness of his trespassing. Only by now I fully notice his features, well-grown, broad shoulders and narrow waist, very slender yet not without strength. His body is covered by a western style suit, jacket, trousers and waistcoat made of crème white linen, as well as his shirt. The only colour comes from a red, maybe brown necktie, that graces the stranger's throat in a slim knot.

He stops and, as if he has noticed my presence, slowly turns around after hesitating for a brief moment. Only by now I can see an oval face that shows unusual – european? - features. His nose is of characteristic form. The light of my lantern throws shadows on his strangely pale countenance. Short, bright hair shines bright as gold in the weak light that surrounds us. When his eyes touch me I get frightened for a split second. They are of an intense blue colour, just like the kimono which was worn by the meiko earlier. The seem to glow in the darkness just like water on a warm day at the beach, endlessly deep yet always changing. I have never seen something like that before. Unable to move I stare at him and my mind goes blank. There is not a single thought I could think yet speak out loud, even though I am usually well known for my straightforwardness.

For a moment he watches me, and it feels as if a subtle flickering wanders all over his face. A weak, warm glowing glimmer seems to surround him, but once I look closer it disappears. Instead a thin smile appears on his lips, a smile that does not fit the situation.

Uncertain what to do my fingers clench my hakama's fabric. I want to stand up, but with a calm gesture the other asks me to remain seated. I do not know why but I obey even before I have fully processed what is happening.

“Please don't be frightened”, the man says and his voice sounds remarkably soft despite its deepness.

“You speak Japanese.” I mention it not without surprise.

“A little.” By now he fully turns toward me. His voice is lacking a real accent even though his pronunciation is not the one of a Japanese.

“Who are you?” It takes courage to ask this. His presence fills me with fear and yet there is something different, a feeling that I consider absolutely foreign. It causes me to remain calm. I could have fought him instead. I would have been able to do so.

The other bows shortly. “Please excuse my appearance to this late hour. My ship was delayed. Only hours ago I arrived at the port of Yokohama.”

“That does not answer my question.”

“My name is Erwin. Erwin Schmidt. I'm a linguist from Heidelberg in Germany and came to Tokyo for research.” Reluctantly he steps closer to me, his eyes wandering all over my face. “Forgive me, but could it be that we have met before somewhere?”

“You must mistake me for somebody else, Schmidt-san”, I reply. “For I see your face for the first time tonight.”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Yes, I could be mistaken after all. See, I haven't slept properly in days. It is just – your eyes. I feel as if I have seen them before.”

I furrow my brows. “My eyes?”, I ask.

“Yes. They have something familiar and are of such unusual colour. But well, it must have happened a long time ago, if so. You sleep deep and calmly, I suppose?”

“Usually I do, yes.”

“I thought so. People tend to forget their dreams once they grow up. I myself am not much different.”

“I don't understand what you're talking about.”

“Very well.” He shows a smile, but it does not last long. “It is not important after all. Forgive me.”

Filled with mistrust I watch him. He is older than I am, probably a lot, but it is hard to tell. Thin wrinkles surround the corners of his eyes, but his gaze shows youthful eagerness. I guess he might be in his late thirties.

“So are you a relative of Akayama Shogo-sensei?”

“He's my father.”

“I see. It is a pleasure to meet you, Akayama-san.”

“Right back at you, Schmidt-san.” Mere politeness.

“Did he happen to mention me earlier?”, Erwin goes on. “I sent a telegram regarding my arrival, but I did not receive an answer. He once told me that his house would always be open for me and that I would be more than welcome.” A silent laughter leaves his throat. “I will live in the university's quarters, though, therefore there is no need to accommodate me. I considered it important though to inform your father about my arrival right away, since I owe him very much and he always cared for me. Sometimes one can forget politeness in such circumstances, right? We used to be friends, you know? We haven't met in twenty years. Can you imagine how eager I am to reunite with him after such a long time? How old are you?”

“I am about to be twenty two years old”, I say and he nods.

“I doubt you can imagine it then”, he replies casually.

“Maybe. But I am sorry to disappoint you”, I go on. “You missed my father in every way possible. He died.” The cheerful expression disappears from Erwin's face as if someone had blown out the light in his eyes. For a moment he stands in front of me, thunderstruck.

“He is dead?”, he whispers. Now it is me who nods.

“Last year.” I place my hand on my chest. “His lungs.”

“Tuberculosis?”

I nod. Why do I tell him that?, I wonder.

For a moment he does not move, stunned, surprised, obviously shocked. Eventually he lets his hands sink and he looks at me as if he had suddenly forgotten why he had come over in the first place. His knees are struggling to keep him up, it cannot be overlooked. I fight the urge to ask him to leave – how could I defend such a decision in front of my father? - and sigh. How he stands there, foreign in all respects, I pity him.

Silently I point to the place next to me. Muttering a thank you with a low voice Erwin approaches me and sits down. But his closeness makes me nervous. The interaction with strangers is nothing I am fond of or good at. His exotic appearance and the absurdity of the entire situation make it even worse.

Once he has calmed down he takes out a silver box with cigarettes, places one between a pair of trembling lips and lights it. He deeply inhales the smoke, blowing it out into the night afterwards.

“This is not quite how I pictured my arrival”, he whispers eventually and laughs, half cautiously, half bitterly, as if he had made a joke. His eyes though look weary and sad.

“So you knew my father?”, I ask. Somehow I want to keep the conversation going, yet I cannot even say why. There is something in the air.

“I studied under his patronage before he returned to Japan.” Erwin leans the head slightly to one side and for a moment he looks as if he was trying to remember a long forgotten dream. “But that was a long time ago.”

“Probably before I was born.”

“I suppose.”

“I see. You are a linguist you say?”

“A linguist and anthropologist. I taught in Heidelberg. Unfortunately I had to give up my position. A stroke of destiny, so to say.” He raises his head and looks up in the night sky, until he, not without a certain waggishness, gazes at me from the corner of his eyes. “Sometimes we can't influence where life sends us, right?”

“So you were a professor?”

“Only a doctor.”

“Of philosophy?”

“Yes.”

“So I shall call you Smith-hakase.” To my surprise we both laugh. The fear that has filled me in the beginning slowly fades. “But you look too young to have studied under my father”, I continue. “As far as I know he returned from Germany in 1900.”

“That's true. Yet I have given up ageing and therefore appear quite youthful.” He laughs once more and assures me afterwards that he is just joking. “The loss of my position though equipped me with the necessary freedom to travel abroad. A good research trip can form the basis of an entire academic career. Mankind's knowledge has multiplied several times during the past few centuries, but there is still so much to discover. Traditions, cultures, languages. Everything is changing, all the time, a never ending metamorphosis. With the reform of 1903 [5] the description of the Japanese language is almost back to children's shoes. We can never be finished.”

“So you plan to describe the Japanese language?”, I ask. He then falls silent, so lang that I start to wonder whether he has overheard my question.

“I don't know. Maybe. At least there is no end in sight.”

“So by now you just travel around?”

“That's right.”

“Without an end or goal in mind?”

“Possibly.”

“How unusual.”

“Not as unusual as one might think. Sometimes I feel as if I am desperately searching for something, but can't tell what it is. I don't even know why I bother to tell you, since this is probably more than you care to hear.” He takes out his notebook from the inner pocket of his jacket. With careful touches he opens it and notes something inside. Doing so he carries his cigarette between his lips.

“It's normally prohibited to smoke out here”, I say in a chilly manner. “The ash will soil the garden.”

Erwin looks up. He looks surprised over the sudden change of my voice's tone, but soon a gentle smile follows. “Be unconcerned.” He once more reaches in his jacket and takes out a silver box. As if he wanted to gain my trust by his smile, he thoroughly places the cigarette ash inside.

“What are you writing?”, I ask, after I watched him doing so for a while.

“Observations.”

“Like a diary?”

“No.” He pauses his writing and gazes to me. “Rather things that I have seen throughout my journey. After my return they will form the basis of my research paper, finally establishing me amongst my fellow scientists. A professorship does not grow on trees, you know? Such things need to be planned from the longhand.”

“I see.” My father once said something similar to me a couple of years ago, but I do not remember the exact tone. I was never interested in an academic career. I wanted to go out in the world ever since, and change it for the better.

The way he sits next to me, his cigarette gallantly resting between his fingers, I feel the urge to smoke myself, but I keep it to myself. Instead I watch him, eye his bright hair and the pale features. He looks like a ghost, humanlike and still strange. I try to remember how often I have seen a foreigner throughout my life, or spoken to one, yet even at university we usually stuck to our kind. The few I interacted with were hardly so noticeable as he is. Most of them had brown hair and brown eyes and therefore equalled my fellow companions.

“Linguist, you say?”

“Yes.”

“And my father taught you?”

“Indeed.”

“That's why you speak Japanese?”

Erwin nods. “Japanese as well, yes.”

“As well?” I raise my brows. “What else do you speak?”

“German.”

“Of course.”

He laughs. “Also Latin and old Greek.”

“Dead languages? Why so?”

“They belong to the curriculum in Europe if someone wants to attend university.”

“I see.” Carefully I nod. “Seems kind of useless to me.”

“Not at all.” Gently smiling he lowers his gaze and a certain love that is most likely dedicated to all those languages in the world sneak on his face. “You cannot think languages as isolated and outstanding. They reach out over continents and centuries and influence each other. Since most of them share the same roots it is sometimes even possible to say they exist within each other – only in different manifestations. So learning from the origin means to learn them all in a certain way.”

“Maybe in Europe.” I click my tongue. This may be sufficient for languages of huge continents, but not for us. We have been isolated long enough to give our language a proper uniqueness. “The Japanese language is different though.”

“Well”, Erwin gently shakes his head without looking at me, “I wouldn't say that. Even the Japanese imported a not to underestimating amount of its vocabulary from the Chinese. Not to mention the writing system. Just think of the Chinese readings that still exist.”

“You present your point of view quite openly”, I say not without anger. He is right and I feel embarrassed. “Hakase.”

“Always.” Again he smiles, but this time it looks strangely lost in reverie. I can barely tell what is going on in his mind.

“Are there any other languages you speak? Languages that are actually used nowadays?”

“French. English. A little bit Russian, but only rudimentary. And Japanese, as you might have noticed already, but I am far from perfect.”

“You are a well educated man.”

He does not overhear the sarcasm in my voice. He snorts in amusement; thereby his shoulders slightly move up and down in their crème white fabric. “Maybe. But the same may apply to the son of a professor like you are.”

“The main business of this family is publishing, Schmidt-hakase. We also sell traditional Japanese printings. Since my father's death it is my responsibility.”

“So you will most likely be skilful in calculating and reading, I suppose?”

“Maybe.”

“You attended university, you said?”

“Yes.”

“So you are also able in reading and writing classic Japanese?”

“Yes.” It is a subject I dislike to talk about, especially not to men who appear at the darkest hour of the night in the most mysterious manner. “After graduation I was supposed to travel, just as you are now, but the circumstances wouldn't allow it.”

“So, would you consider yourself well educated due to your degree?”

“You ask strange questions, Hakase.”

“Forgive me. I don't mind if you prefer not to answer, though.”

He looks in my direction and for a second our gazes meet. The bluishness of his eyes runs through me like thunder. How did the gods came up with the idea to give eyes such intense as these to mankind? Their colour looks chilly, and yet I feel as if they could melt ice easily.

“There are many things I do not know”, I say. “More than I believe to know. I am not as well educated as people might think, I suppose, just as you.”

“You see. My education enables me to work in the field I love. That is all. It does not mean anything.”

“If you think so.” A thin smile makes the corners of my mouth twitch, but they show signs of bitterness. “Tell this the farmer who cannot afford higher education for his sons, or the mine worker, sweating underneath the surface for our wealth. They will tell you different.”

“Probably. But it would be just as inadequate to assume their character from the way they make a living. There might as well be educated workers just as some seem to lose their education through university years.”

With these words he picks up his pen and writes more things into his notebook. Nobody of us speaks. In the meantime I reconsider his words in my mind and, even though silently, acknowledge the truth of what he just said. I thereby listen to the distant cicadas, until Erwin suddenly starts to laugh.

“Hakase”, he mutters and shakes his head.

“Does this name bother you?”

“It makes me feel kind of old to be called this way.” As if he had given up he closes the book. “At home we use different names.”

“But you are not at home anymore.”

“I am aware of that.”

“How did they call you there?”

“At university? Or at home?”

“At home.”

“They called me Erwin. Just Erwin. Schmidt is my family name.”

Carefully I try to pronounce his name, but fail. It is as if I am lacking the necessary sounds and letters for the correct pronunciation. A few more times he repeats his first name and I try again, but no matter what I am doing, something Japanese sticks to his name.

“Not bad”, he says eventually with the everlasting friendly smile. “You have an european tongue.”

“Is it decent where you come from? To call each other by the first name?”

“If one allows it, then yes.”

“How unusual.” Apart from my closest family members nobody has ever called me by my plain first name, not even my closest friends from university. But just as Mikasa had said earlier, those times are over and they will never return.

“You haven't told me your name yet”, Erwin says suddenly as if he just remembered something he had forgotten for a long time.

“But you know it”, I reply. “It is Akayama, just like my father's. Written with the kanji for red and mountain.” But Erwin only laughs.

“Not your family name. I mean your first name. What is it?”

“Is this part of your research?”

Another laughter, cheerful as the one of a child. “No”, he says, but it seems as if his gaze suddenly intensified. “But I'm naturally curious.”

His tone signalises me no danger and yet I cannot help myself. Heat rises in my cheeks. I turn away and lower my gaze. He is very straightforward, too much for my taste. I am not used to be interrogated like that. The environment I grew up in treasures tact. We even have a saying for it: Reading the air. Secretly I am longing for the dance of form and etiquette that has interwoven every human interaction since my childhood days. Even back then, in Ginza, we have not treated each other in such a careless manner. We rejected the rules of society but we developed our own. This man though completely seems to pass them. If on purpose or by accident is something I cannot tell. But how can I expect a stranger to know the complex rules of this society? His Japanese, on the other hand, is so precise and polite that there can only be one solution: He knows exactly what he is doing.

“Levi”, I say eventually and my voice equals a whisper. The heat in my cheeks rushes once the syllables, two only, leave my lips. I have introduced myself to strangers for countless times, but never before it has left me so agitated. “My name is Levi.”

“Written with the kanji for light and bringing?”

“Yes. How do you know?”

“I just assumed.”

He seems to like that. Obviously satisfied he rests his elbows on his knees, folds his hands and places his chin on them. Lost in thoughts he looks into the night, then to me. I can see mischievousness in his eyes. “So you are a bringer of light, huh?”

With a reluctant nod I agree with his statement, but my heart is beating heavily in my chest. Erwin seems to notice. After a while he takes out his pocket watch and checks the time. Whether it is made of gold or silver is hard to notice in the candle light, but it is remarkably beautiful.

“It is already late”, he says. Once more I nod. “I should go. Again, please forgive me my unasked appearance here.”

“Don't mention it, Hakase. But next time it might be better for you to come during the day.” If there is a next time.

“It must have been quite strange for you.” Smiling gently Erwin shakes his head.

“Rather unexpected”, I reply. “As if I dreamed the strangest dream.”

Erwin stands up. "Such things happen every now and then", he says and buttons his jacket. I nod, yet follow his movements only half-heartedly.

"As long as it lasts we know that we are alive.”

"Maybe." With a satisfied sigh he pushes his hands into the pockets of his pants and takes one last look at the garden. „Yet are you sure that we are awake? It seems to me that yet we sleep we dream. Do not you think the duke was here and bid us follow him?“ He then looks over to me, his lips twitching in an indicated smile. Most calmly he searches for my gaze.

"What is this?", I hear myself ask.

"Shakespeare. A midsummer night's dream." He turns around. "However", he says, "good night, Levi-san. It was nice meeting you. I'm sorry for your loss."

“It seems to be your loss as well.”

“It is. But whatever is gained one day must be lost. That's life, right? It's an everlasting circle.” With these words and a last smile he disappears the way he walked into my life only minutes before. Silently I watch him leave, unable to move. The slight aftertaste of a memory remains in my chest.

"Levi-san", I whisper mockingly. What a strange, strange man that was.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


 

[1] 1914.

[2] After a 400 year period of isolation Japan opened up to the west, soon adapting new customs and industrialisation, modernizing the country within 50 years.

[3] 1923.

[4] Fest in order to celebrate the return of the dead from the other world. They remain for one week amongst the living, then return back. It is celebrated with dances, festivals and firework.

[5] The reformation of the Japanese writing system of 1903, changing from classical Japanese to spoken Japanese as the ideal of how a written text should be composed like.