Art by wolfkeeper989
Koda is born on January first, at a family-run clinic doubling as a veterinary hospital in a tiny town along the Kitakami mountain range. His mother laughs gently when she holds him in her arms, tiny and pink and round, and mutters that he looks like a soft-shelled turtle. They name him Koji after his great-grandfather, who had himself been named after the village’s original settler.
Growing up so far from civilization is tough—Koda knows this because the adults around him say so. They grumble it in the winter as they rebuild roofs that have caved under the heavy snowfall, and in the spring when wild boars get into their vegetables, and in the summer when the streams dry up and it’s days between rains, and then again in the fall as they prepare provisions for the winter. Koda knows, on some level, what it means to live in a modern city, because he visits his extended family in Morioka every August, but it’s an alien world to him, like he’s traveling to the moon, where the clothes sparkle and everything is made of cement.
He learns of heroes through comic books and his friends’ TVs. The mayor has a computer, but Koda doesn’t know how to use it, and the reception is too spotty to justify a cell phone even if they could afford it. Because of the degree of separation, it never quite occurs to him that heroes real people until the day he meets one.
It’s early June in his first year of junior high when torrential rain followed by a nasty earthquake sends mudslides cascading over the valleys of Iwate, swallowing up his village and several others like it. Due to the scale of the disaster, it takes almost a week before help can reach Koda’s town. Power Loader arrives with a group of ten others from his agency, armed with dogs and expecting bodies, only to discover teams of monkeys and rats and deer and boars working together to unearth the last of the buried houses.
There’s not a single casualty.
He finds Koda in the middle of a group of bears, helping to break down the larger debris for transportation, and introduces him to the world of heroism by grabbing him by the shoulders and dragging him into it.
Koda takes the UA entrance exam at Power Loader’s behest. On the way to Musutafu, he falls asleep on the bullet train, and when he wakes up it’s like he’s been transported to an alternate dimension on a planet that’s not his. People in sharp suits cram themselves into a single train, more than he’s ever seen in his life, their noses pointed down at the shining sheets of glass in their hands. Everywhere he looks are buildings, so tall and identical to one another that it’s hard not to get lost even when standing in place.
Before the exam, Koda tries to make conversation with a boy his age, but his dialect is too thick and he’s met with a confused look. The boy can’t tell if he’s speaking Japanese.
Both the ideas of living in the city and of being a hero feel illusory, like trying to hold a rainbow in his hands. In a way, it feels ridiculous. Childish. But, almost faster than he can open his letter of acceptance, the news of it spreads through his town, and the next time he steps out of his house he’s surrounded by congratulatory neighbors. They throw him a farewell party that same night, in which they reveal that they’ve pooled their money together to help his parents afford a one-room apartment near the school for him.
Koda had not expected to pass. He's unsure he wanted to pass. But his neighbors call him their pride, and he can’t say no to the opportunity after that.
Some people from where he’s from like to say that humans are a part of nature. They say that living so close to the animals, encircled by greenery and mountains, allows them to become one with the environment. For Koda, he feels the opposite: it’s by living so close to the natural world that he’s been able to understand his humanity. Every year, he watches as the plants and animals and rivers and everything that’s natural adjusts itself to the changes in the climate, and he watches himself fail to do the same, because that’s the difference between man and nature. Nature adapts itself, while man adapts nature.
It’s not a good or a bad thing to him. It is what it is. His mom tells him that she’s concerned moving to the city will change him, but he tells her not to worry, because he’s a person, and people are static. He’s not going to change so easily.
And he doesn’t.
He starts school in spring.
To him, spring is the smell of flowers on the air and the feeling of young grass silken under his bare feet. It’s the song of old friends returning to their northern homes and the newborn cries of friends he’s yet to meet. It’s when the new year truly starts, so he thinks it’s appropriate that he starts his new life then, too. He knows it will be difficult, but he tells himself it’ll be okay, because he knows how to be patient with himself even when no one else is.
On the first day of school, he makes a modest attempt to step outside of his comfort zone, but he barely speaks loud enough to be heard. After several failed attempts to communicate, he falls back into his old habit of using sign and simple gestures. That’s okay, he tells himself. He can’t change overnight.
His classmates are amazing. He spends his year watching the seeds within them take root and sprout, their leaves reaching up toward the sky as they shoot up higher and higher. They bloom in a flurry of magnificent colors, each one uniquely their own, and when he enters the classroom in the morning he thinks that they look like a valley of wildflowers mid-blossom.
Sometimes, he feels like the single, solitary rock jutting out awkwardly amongst them—like he’s in the way of their otherwise beautiful panorama.
But spring gives way to the heat of summer. As many of them begin to wilt under the heat and the pressure of the sun, they look to him for shade. Whenever things are hard at home or their bodies hurt from training, they stay at his apartment and he makes them his grandmother’s maabujiru . This tradition continues even as the summer buzz of cicadas fades away into the smokiness of autumn and all the students have situated themselves in the dorms. Stone does not trade in secrets, so they give him theirs, because he won’t spread them, and he’s the only thing they know that won’t bend under their weight.
After moving to the dorms, the people from his village use the money that would have gone toward his rent to buy him a laptop that Ojiro has to teach him how to use. On it, he makes weekly video calls back to his village, where his old friends and family gather around the mayor’s webcam to say how proud they are of him. Despite everything on the news, they maintain that they aren’t worried. His folks say there’s no way that a bunch of soft cityfolk can get one over on someone who’s grown up digging his own latrines, and every week it makes him feel a little bit guiltier. He doesn’t know how to tell them that he might be the weakest in his class.
Through relieved sighs, he’s told that he hasn’t changed a bit, and he knows it’s true. None of them have, either.
The trees are bare and the birds have fled the skies by the time Koda realizes his classmates have started communicating with him almost entirely in sign. When he asks Rikido about it, he just gives him a toothy grin and thumbs up, telling him that a bunch of them had decided to learn it in their spare time. “It only makes sense,” he says. “After all, we’re friends, aren’t we?”
Koda spends a long time thinking about this.
He’s touched. Never would he have imagined that his friends would spend their precious free time doing that for him, and he wonders if maybe that’s why he feels so different from them: because he’s passive. While he sits like a rock in a stream, his classmates are actively changing themselves, like there’s something intrinsic in their DNA driving their metamorphosis.
It’s as if they’re the same pattern cut of different cloth.
Koda begins to look at his classmates and at himself. As the days warm and the treetops spot with pink, he wonders what it means that, despite all of them being human, he’s the only person in his school who seems to remain static.