When he had reached a good stopping point with the winter preparations, Van went to take care of the puyka. The first time he saw the puyka, he was frozen stiff with shock at the way they were being treated. ──Unbelievably, each of the puyka had been tied to a stake that had been planted inside the enclosure.
Even Zuppy, who had been cheerfully pulling their cart up to the settlement, started to struggle violently as soon Yoki took her reins, and once she was tied to a stake, repeatedly slammed into it in irritation.
“It’s because these buggers can jump stupidly high.” Toma’s uncle, Yoki, said while spitting his chewing tobacco on the ground after seeing Van’s face. “I mean, no matter how high we made da fences, these buggers easily jumped over ’em, so we bound ’em like dat. We gotta tie ’em, and even feed ’em. Shit, all da good food, and on top o’ dat they need lots of work.”
Van furrowed his eyebrows, and asked Yoki, “Didn’t the folks who sold you the puyka teach you about mohoki?”
Now it was Yoki’s turn to furrow his eyebrows.
“Mohoki? What’s dat? Ain’t no one said anythin’ ’bout somethin’ like dat.”
Sorrow filled Van’s chest after hearing that. It was unthinkable for the Okuba people, who came here to sell puyka, to not have known about mohoki.
Mohoki was a kind of lichen that grew on old trees. For some reason, puyka hated it with a burning passion. Puyka would never even approach the fences you build so long as you pick some mohoki, dry it, and turn it into a rope to line the fences with. In other words, the puyka would stay in their enclosure because of the mohoki.
Without it, puyka would jump over short fences, while tall fences would trigger the puyka’s intense hatred of being held captive and cause them to become depressed.
In the first place, puyka are grazers, they aren’t animals you can raise in an enclosure. That was something they had in common with reindeer. Even though they needed to be protected from wolves during the seasons when the wolves were more active, they were usually animals that should be allowed to live freely in the forests.
Puyka behaved differently to other deer. They formed herds, but there were also times where they scattered over such big areas that, other than the mother-child pairs, it wasn’t clear if individuals even belonged to the same herd. They were deer with a strong sense of individuality, but they also succumbed to loneliness easily, and their loyalty was so strong that it was almost unnatural. If one bonded with a young puyka, they would never forget you for their whole life, and could always be called to you with a single whistle.
They migrated depending on the seasons, but since puyka used the same migration routes every year, it was possible to skilfully control a herd by planting mohoki at key points in a forest.
The children of a clan would enter the forests with their parents from a young age, and grow up following the puyka’s daily routines from morning to evening. The adults would select promising young puyka from the new fawns, and have their children bond with the chosen puyka as they continued to watch and learn the ways of differentiation and domestication.
The people living in the Toga Mountainous District had coexisted like this with the puyka since long ago.
Assuming that the Okuba clan, who had sold the puyka, had deliberately withheld the information about the indispensable mohoki, Van could only think that they wished for the people here to fail at breeding puyka while pretending to follow Ziol’s orders.
I can understand the feelings of the Okuba clan. I really can, but the ones suffering from a trick like this aren’t the Ziolian soldiers. Instead, it’s the people of Oki who, when they inevitably fail at breeding puyka, are driven into debt and forced to pay heavy taxes on top of having paid a great deal for the puyka in the first place. For the Ziolian soldiers something like breeding puyka registers as no more than a project that will bring profit if it goes well. However, the people of Oki, who have already bet their futures on the puyka and gotten rid of the reindeer that would be vital for their previous livelihoods, can only be relegated to poverty if they fail.
However, if they succeed…
The instant the image of Ziolian soldiers riding puyka crossed his mind, Van’s face twisted in disgust and hate.
That is the only thing I cannot allow, no matter what happens. …It looks like I’m stuck between a rock and a hard place.
If both choices end with grief, you have no choice but to choose the one that will cause less pain. The Okuba Clan probably had such thoughts as well, and has decided to ignore the distress of the people of Oki. However, it’s not just the people of Oki who will suffer from this.
I wonder, did the Oku folks feel nothing even after seeing the wretched state of these puyka?
In the past, the men of the Okuba were widely-known as puyka riders, just like Van’s clan.
There’s no way that they didn’t have any feelings about this. They must have suffered from seeing this as well.
Van closed his eyes for a brief moment. He saw a puyka behind his eyelids. A puyka freely galloping like the wind with its horns towering high…
He opened his eyes and looked at the puyka before him, their heads bowed sadly, and thought, I can’t abandon the puyka. In the past my father said that we should never forget that we’re using the puyka for our own convenience. That the puyka riders owe their puyka the world for using them to further their own purposes, even as they sing heroic songs to steel their hearts.
He was a heavy drinker, but still a good father. A man capable of thinking about the deeper meanings of such things even as he lied to himself.
Van muttered in his mind while looking at the puyka, You’re being sacrificed for the spats between people. In that case, I think I am the one who should concede, not you. My aversion to seeing Ziolian soldiers riding you is merely a result of my own bitterness. After all I left my hometown on my own accord, but you were brought here against your wills.
War, submission, heavy taxation, suffering people, and a country that extorts them. All of these things are the issues of man. They are so very complicated that you can’t expect even the slightest thing to change just by sacrificing the puyka.
Having made his decision, his heart calmed considerably.
As long as it’s something I’m capable of, I’ll do it. Right now I’m just alleviating the suffering of those in front of me. ──The agony of the people living here, and the puyka.
When the winter preparations were mostly finished, Van made a makeshift sickle by attaching a blade to the end of a long stick, shouldered a basket, and entered the forest to look for mohoki.
The southern side of the forest had many deciduous trees, and received a decent amount of sun. The trees had lost most of their leaves, brightening up the forest considerably. As Van walked across the fallen leaves in the dry air, he suddenly felt an echo of the helplessness he had once experienced in his childhood.
It was a stabbing chill that settled in his chest, like when he had entered the forest to look for mohoki with his friends and had become separated… For some reason he distinctly remembered the feeling of playing tough since he was embarrassed about being scared despite knowing that someone would surely answer him if only he were to shout loudly.
It’s probably because I’m in an unfamiliar forest.
The forest back home, which he knew like the back of his hand, and this forest looked completely different. And yet, the sunlight streaming onto his face through the erratically swaying leaves here and there, and the faintly dusty smell of the fallen leaves permeating his skin suddenly made him intensely aware of the fact that he was alive right now.
A bird was chirping. It was the short, high-pitched song of autumn warbled by a small bird with red tail feathers. Van stopped and carefully listened to the lonesome song as he pictured his wife in her younger days as she absentmindedly listened to a small bird’s chirping, her hand on a straight white tree trunk as her delicate face was bathed in the golden gleam of the afternoon sun.
On that day, his wife’s smooth cheeks were bright. She was still overflowing with cheerful happiness, blissfully ignorant of the child growing in her belly, and what days might follow.
Van had closed his eyes without realizing, stilling within the white light. The days march on, and all people and things inevitably meet their end. It’s impossible to stop the flow of time. The cleansing white light of autumn reaches even my body.
Suddenly he heard something stir in the thicket. Van quickly opened his eyes. For a transient moment his eyes met with those of a deer.
The deer was still young. It had likely been curious about the intruder, but because their eyes met, it quickly turned on its heels, and darted away. Van reflexively smiled at the noise it made as it ran through the bushes.
Young deer are noisy. ──And yet, despite its loudness, he was envious.
Van hiked the basket up on his shoulder, and started to walk again. Once the sun goes down, it’ll become difficult to find any mohoki. I’ve got no spare time to laze around.
Even in an unfamiliar forest, as long as he learned the ways that the trees grew in and the sun shone, he could roughly guess how and where plants would likely grow.
It’s said that mohoki can live for a thousand years by merely absorbing the dew that settles on old trees. I must go in a little further, deep into the northern side of the forest.
While he walked, his instincts alerted him, and he lifted his face in surprise at the scent of something he recognised. He caught a glimpse of a big, white treetop behind the intersecting branches of several hazy trees. It was an old tree, a perfect place for mohoki.
However, that tree is still quite a good distance away. Why can I smell the mohoki from here? …Again, huh?
Van knitted his eyebrows as a familiar sensation, which he had managed to forget during his time living in the Oki settlement, took over his nose once again. He didn’t know what had triggered it, but it seemed as though that unbelievably sharp sense of smell would be awoken when something stimulated it.
The somewhat grassy aroma of the mohoki, which he was used to smelling, stank terribly. Even though he hadn’t thought anything of it so far, just smelling it from here caused his heart to beat wildly for some reason.
On the one hand it smelled absolutely atrocious to him, and at the same time he felt strangely attracted to it. He was caught in the struggle of two completely opposing sets of instincts fighting over control of his senses. Whenever Van thought of the fact that he needed to approach that, reap it, and bring it back to the settlement in his basket, he shuddered in disgust, but it wasn’t as though he could choose not to do it either.
Van reluctantly covered his mouth and nose with his right hand and continued to approach the old tree and the partner it supported in its branches rubbing his right arm, which was covered in goosebumps, with his left hand. What looked like light yellow fur was hanging from branches all over the tall, old tree. It was as if a tattered, torn silken cloth was dangling from the thin arms of a ruined, old, worn-out aristocrat. The way mohoki grew, which hadn’t bothered him in any way up until now, suddenly looked very bizarre to him.
The urge to touch it, and the feeling that it would be outrageous to even get close to it. His leg muscles started to tremble and his stomach felt numb, while at the same time the feeling of wanting to turn around on the spot and get away from here welled up within him.
Due to the incomprehensible urges taking his own body prisoner, Van felt almost hysterical so he firmly shut his eyes, and tried to get his breathing under control. As he collected himself in his mind, the discord and chaos that had taken over his body seemed to calm. When the intense waves compelling him had abated slightly, a certain thought struck his mind like lightning.
This, huh? ──Do the puyka avoid mohoki because they feel this? Having said that, I’m no puyka. Why can I feel something like this when I’m not a puyka? My body has turned into something I don’t understand…
Feeling the panic set in from the pit of his stomach, Van ground his teeth. Sucking in air through his gritted teeth, he held down his panic ── this unknown version of him ── with the power of his will. He opened his eyes, and deliberately directly glared at the mohoki in a challenge.
“…I am, me. What’s hanging down before my eyes is mohoki, something beneficial for me, a puyka rider. I’ll harvest this and bring it back to the people waiting for me. Stand straight, me.
After this pep talk, he managed to swallow down the big hard lump in his throat that the urges and his panic had become, and it suddenly became much easier to breathe. In that instant the strength escaped his body, and he broke out in a cold sweat. Van breathed in deeply, picked up the long sickle, and began to harvest the mohoki.
Given that it was a task he had done countless times from a young age, his hands moved without him consciously thinking about it. By the time he had silently finished harvesting, his body had returned to normal. ──However, that other self seemed to be lurking in the depths of his body, and he felt like it was merely patiently awaiting the right time to awaken.
By the time he returned to the settlement, the sky had already begun to darken but without resting for even a second, Van started to improve the puyka enclosure. Normally you would use the mohoki after drying and twining it into a rope, but even that felt like it would take too much time. ──He wanted to release the puyka from their binds. Just seeing them tied to stakes irritated him, and he couldn’t calm down no matter what.
Ouma and the other observed from a distance, staying out of his way, but following his every action with their eyes.
After he had twined the mohoki around all the key areas of the enclosure, Van entered the enclosure, holding a bundle of crude firewood in his left hand and an ax in his right. The others started to look uneasy when they saw him walking into the direction of a big, male puyka which was tossing its horns at him intimidatingly.
Van swung his ax and made a short sound with his tongue and as soon as the rope no longer bound it, the puyka sprang up in a flash. It reared up, its head down and ready to slam into Van with its horns.
As Ouma and the others held their breaths, Van slapped the bundle of firewood against the puyka’s chin from below as if he were trying to prop it up. The puyka’s body was forced to straighten out by the firewood and it collapsed to the ground with a rumble. It was as if its strings had been cut.
While Ouma’s group kicked up a fuss in their confusion, the legs that had ended up in the air moved aimlessly as the puyka twitched, before the puyka got up and shook its head once. And then, as if suddenly realising that it was free, it started to run, but it only galloped around within the enclosure, maintaining a good distance from the fence.
Van stood still, watching the buck until it calmed down. Before long, the buck stopped running. Once it began to graze, Van approached another stake. He continued to release one puyka after the other with the same procedure.
After the other puyka had settled down, he finally went over to the pregnant Zuppy, who had gotten worked up by the commotion, and calmly released her from the stake while clicking his tongue soothingly at her.
She must have been very happy about being released. Zuppy jumped up and down like a young deer for a while, then nudged Van’s back. After rubbing the tip of her nose against his flank, she walked over to a patch where her favorite grass was growing. Her shadow, which grew long into the grassland, was soon lost in the dim light.
Once Van exited the enclosure, he wiped away the sweat trickling down from his forehead.
Ouma called to him as he approached, “Hey, you okay?”
Van nodded as he continued to wipe his sweat. In all honesty, he was so exhausted that he could feel it in his bones, but that seemed to be due to the aroma of the mohoki and him being struck by the irritation of the puyka rather than because of the workload. The moment he left the enclosure, and therefore the feeling of irritation, something inside him relaxed and he was suddenly covered in sweat. By now it had become so dark that only the vaguest of shapes were visible, but he clearly saw the strength of the emotion in Ouma’s eyes.
Oh gods, thank you. The words that passed Ouma’s lips were old words of gratitude. The accent was slightly different, but the people of Van’s hometown expressed their gratitude to the gods with the same words.
They were glad from the bottoms of their hearts that he had come to this place. Van quietly felt reassured, as if his shoulders were gently wrapped up in a warm blanket.