With the windows of the train pushed up just about five centimeters, the smell of the sea was already slowly drifting in.
It was a Sunday afternoon, and there were no other passengers aboard the train aside from me. There would be a lot of visitors heading down to the beach once the summer holidays arrived; but it was only early April, so there was still quite some time before the beaches would become crowded. Given that, the only people that would make a trip down to the beach during spring break would probably be middle school students...... and that included me.
The double-carriage train rumbled past a gentle turn. The walls of mountains and bamboo forests suddenly disappeared before my eyes, and my line of vision broadened, bringing with it the growing smell of the sea. The clusters of rooftops and the copper-rust-colored sea were darkened under the gloomy sky.
The train wobbled and stopped at a small station.
I grabbed my backpack from the luggage rack, and as I walked onto the open platform, I could immediately see a grey band in-between the dark-green mountains on my right.
I had no idea when it started, but the valley had turned into a huge dumping ground. I didn't know if the dumping ground was legal or not, but plenty of trucks from all over the place went there to dispose of broken electric appliances or furniture. And as time passed, that place became strangely silent. It was so quiet it felt as though you had been transported to fifteen minutes after the apocalypse—and because of that, an enclosed space had formed. The middle school I studied at was located close to the beach, and ever since I had stumbled upon that special place by accident after getting lost one day, I secretly called that place <The Department Store of Hearts' Desires>. I had borrowed that name from a certain novel, and even though it was long and unwieldy, it didn't matter, because I didn't plan on telling anyone about it.
♩ ♭ ♫
My father has a weird occupation as a music critic (though that's really rude to other critics, I want to emphasize how uncommon my father's job is to me), and because of that, my house is filled with all sorts of sound systems, records, CDs, musical scores and other related items. My mother left the house about ten years ago because she couldn't take any of it much longer; and though I had no plans or aspirations back then, I had sworn to myself on the night that I became six, that I would never become a music critic.
But let's put all that aside for the moment. The equipment in our house are the tools of the trade; and yet, my father always handles them carelessly. He breaks everything—whether it's the speakers, the turntable or the DVD player. But when I was young, there weren't a lot of people who would buy toys for me, so I resorted to dismantling that broken equipment for fun; and because of that, I slowly learned how to assemble and repair things. Now, it's sort of like a half-hobby to me.
And because of the needs of my hobby, I visit <The Department Store of Hearts' Desires>, located next to the beach, once every two to three months to collect some useful parts, making my way down there via the wobbling train. It feels like I'm the only living person left in this world when I walk around the rubbish heap by myself, and that feeling is rather pleasant.
♪ ♮ ♬
However, I wasn't the only person to visit the dumping ground that day.
As I walked through the forest, making my way towards the valley, I saw a mountain made up of abandoned fridges and scrapped cars that had been exposed to rain and shine. But surprisingly, I also heard the sound of a piano.
I originally thought I was hearing things, but as I stepped out of the forest and looked at the heap of rubbish right in front of my eyes, I realized I wasn't just hearing the sound of a piano. The low chords of the bassoon were like the surface of the calm seas...... and the sounds of the clarinet came to me soon after.
I had no idea what the song was, but I had heard it before. It was probably a piano concerto from Nineteenth Century France. But why can I hear it here?
I climbed on top of the roof of a derelict car and began scaling the rubbish heap. The melody of the piano started turning into that of a march. I had originally thought that the sound of the piano was coming from a radio that still had some power left in it, but that thought vanished within seconds. The depth of the sound wasn't the same. It was definitely the sound of a live piano.
I looked at the basin after I reached the peak of the heap, and the sight that greeted me was so shocking it made me hold my breath.
A large grand piano was buried amid the cupboards and broken beds. Its lid was giving off a black glow, as though it were doused with water, and expanded outwards like the wings of a bird. On the other side of the piano, was a bunch of maroon hair that swayed along with the exquisite sounds of the instrument.
It was a girl.
That girl was sitting in front of the slanted keyboard, with her gaze fixed on her hands, and her long eyelashes slightly drawn back. Those penetrating and exquisite sounds played by her were like the raindrops of late winter, bouncing out drop by drop from within the piano.
I somehow recognized her face.
Her stern and pale white face was something that was out of this world. She was so beautiful I couldn't turn my sight away from her. Her maroon hair shimmered like molten amber under the sun.
I've seen her somewhere before, but...... where?
I couldn't remember her name. And I couldn't recall the piece she was playing either.
There should be no one else around here, so I should only be hearing the sound of the piano and the gushes of waves filtering through the forest. So why? Why can I hear the sounds of an orchestra?
I suddenly noticed that the piano beneath me was giving off a tremble and a slight sound whenever she played the low notes with force. But it wasn't just that. The bicycle buried under the rubble over there, the rusted metal container, the broken LCD screens, everything—they were all resonating with the piano.
The rubbish buried in the valley was singing.
And those echoes stirred up my memories of the sound of the orchestra that accompanied that tune.
It was just an auditory hallucination, but it felt way too real.
I know that piece of music somehow, but what exactly is it?
Why—does it touch my heart so much?
The allegro march was like a flurry of footsteps flowing into the expansive estuary before dawn, which was the music at adagio. Countless tiny bubbles of notes flowed upwards from the depths of the sea to the surface, and gradually spread outwards. Then, the sounds of the orchestra rang from afar again, and should've continued on steadily—
But the music suddenly stopped.
I held my breath and looked down at the piano while I was stuck to the peak of the rubbish heap like a barnacle.
The girl had stopped playing, and was looking at me with an extremely stern look.
The illusory orchestra, the reverberations of the piano, and even the sound of the wind rustling through the trees—they had all disappeared, leading me to think, for an instant, that the apocalypse had really come.
"...... How long have you been standing there?"
She spoke. Her voice was clear, like the shattering of a wine glass on the floor. She was angry. I lost my footing and slipped from the fridge I was standing on.
"I am asking you, how long have you been standing there?"
I was finally able to breathe after squeezing my voice out.
"...... Probably during the cadenza."
"The cadenza at the beginning?"
She sprang upwards, and her soft maroon hair fell down from her shoulders. It was only then I realized she was wearing a white one piece dress.
"So you have been listening since the beginning?"
I couldn't help it, alright! What did you want me to do then? Do an Indian dance while yelling my lungs out for you to see? As I looked at her red face and her fluttering hair, I slowly regained my composure. I did nothing wrong, it was just that someone had arrived earlier than I did, right?
"No, hold on!" Why must I be charged with those accusations?
"To think you actually stalked me all the way out here!"
"Stalk...... Oi! I'm just here to collect some junk!"
The instant she slammed the key lid of the piano, something resonated along with it. The fridge that I was standing on suddenly gave off a violent tremble. It tilted slightly, and I slid down along with it.
I rolled away from the tilted fridge and the hood of the derelict car, towards the bottom of the basin where the piano was. My shoulders crashed into the leg of the piano.
Just as I was about to stand up, I realized her face was right in front of mine. Her navy-blue eyes were gazing at me intensely. Shocked and unable to move, I could only stare at those lips of hers, which were gently quivering like the petals of a camellia.
"Why are you here if you are not stalking me?"
"Eh? Ah, no, you see......"
She knitted her brows. The mysterious magical powers that had been binding me weakened a little, and I finally managed to regain control of myself, and scooted backwards while still sitting on the ground.
"I said I'm here to pick up some audio parts! I actually do come here occasionally. It's not like I'm stalking you."
Why would I lie? Then again, does this girl suspect she is being stalked by someone?
"In any case, leave this place immediately, and tell no one about my presence here. You are to remove the memory of the tune you just heard from your mind as well."
"How is that possible......"
"You definitely. Cannot. Tell!" Her eyes were shimmering with tears, as though the stars were falling from the sky. Having witnessed that, I could no longer say anything else.
"I understand, I'll just scram, alright?"
I heaved my backpack onto my shoulders and began climbing up the rubbish heap. Then, cranking sounds of a machine suddenly echoed behind me, followed by her screams of "Ah! Ya!"
When I turned my head around to take a look at what was happening, I noticed a palm-sized tape recorder on the piano. It was giving off a strange sound. Could it be that she was actually recording this entire time......? The tape inside seemed to be spinning back and forth. I couldn't bear seeing that worried look on her face as she held that tape recorder any longer, so I walked over and pressed the switch on the recorder.
"...... Is...... Is it broken?"
She asked, with a voice that was close to tears, as she carefully lifted up the tape recorder and cupped it like an egg that was close to hatching.
"Ah, don't do that. You can't just pry open the recorder like that."
She quickly stopped herself from attempting to open the cover. I placed my backpack on the piano and took out a screwdriver. Her eyes widened when she saw that.
"...... Are you dismantling it?"
"Don't worry, I'll repair it carefully."
When I took the recorder from her hands, I realized it wasn't an ordinary recorder, but a double-track recorder and player. Not only could it play the A and B sides of a tape simultaneously, it could also record on them separately as well. But the labels on the recorder were printed in a language that I had never seen before, and it was obviously not English.
"What language is this?"
"Hungarian," she replied softly. European goods, huh. Can I really repair this?
After I unscrewed the screws and removed the outer casing, what appeared before me was an interior made up of parts I was familiar with. International standards are really useful.
"Can it...... be repaired?"
I lowered the lid of the piano to use it as a worktable and slowly began to disassemble the recorder. Just as I thought, the magnetic tape has been pulled out of the cassette. It was spewed out and had clustered into a bunch—just like the spewed out organs of a sea cucumber—so it took me quite some effort to remove the cassette.
"...... Hey, is this tape recorder defective to begin with?"
"Eh? Ah, mmm...... The tape will not stop spinning even after it reaches the end, so it will get even more tangled if you do not press the stop button."
I see, the automatic stopping device was already faulty.
"I-It is because your sudden appearance made me forget to press it."
So it's my fault again? Just buy a new one already.
"Is this important to you?" Since she was still using it despite it being faulty.
"Eh?" She looked at me in surprise, then lowered her head and said, "Mmm."
Hungary huh. This girl shouldn't be Japanese then, or is she? The contours of her face make her look like a mixed-blood to me. As I thought that, I dug for parts in the rubbish heap. After finding the required pieces, I finally completed my surgery on the recorder. Whether it's rewinding the tape or fast-forwarding, it shouldn't go out of control anymore.
"And it's done."
"Eh...... Ah, mmm." Her face showed an expression of disbelief. But just as I was about to press the play button to confirm the recorder was working normally, she suddenly snatched it away from me.
"Y-You are not allowed to listen." She tweaked the volume to its lowest, then pressed the play button to confirm it was working properly.
She hugged the tape recorder tightly, then thanked me with a tiny voice while hanging her head downwards with her face flushed red. For some unknown reason, I felt embarrassed as well, so I turned away and nodded.
Right when I was finished packing my tools back into my backpack, she suddenly asked, "Why do you bring so many things along with you?"
"I just told you I enjoy fiddling with machines. That's why I'm here to look for parts!"
"Then...... is that fun?"
Her sudden question caught me by surprise, and I was unsure of how to answer her.
"Hmm...... I'm not too sure if repairing a broken machine is something to be happy about, but everyone seems really happy when they can regain something they thought they had lost."
As we exchanged glances, her face became red again, so she hurriedly turned her head away. As I stared at her side profile, I had a sudden impulse to bombard her with multiple questions. Why are you here? Or rather..... who are you? What was the title of the piece you were playing? And also, I want to listen to what you recorded, you know? Perhaps that orchestra I had heard wasn't actually my hallucination? I had thought of asking her all those things, but she probably would've just gotten angry again if I had actually asked her those questions.
She placed the recorder back onto the piano, then sat on a cupboard as a substitute for a chair and looked at her feet. I wanted to continue talking with her, but the atmosphere was no longer right, and I couldn't find an opportunity to speak. Forget it, it feels like she finds me troublesome anyway. I'll just head home for the day.
I probably won't meet her again the next time I come here, right? Or perhaps she comes here because there's no piano in her house? I thought about all these things as I prepared to climb up the rubbish heap. But suddenly, her voice rang out behind me,
I turned my head.
She was fidgeting next to the piano. She didn't look angry this time around, but instead, was blushing due to embarrassment. "Do you live nearby?"
I tilted my head.
"...... Nope. It takes about four hours to get here by train."
"Then are you heading to the station now?"
She instantly showed an expression of relief the moment I nodded my head. She slung the recorder next to her waist and began following behind me, scaling the slope made up of huge rubbish.
"Are you going back? Then I can just stay here, right?"
"You can't! Just move, go on!"
What's with that......
I maneuvered past the bumpy heaps of rubbish unhappily and slowly walked back towards the forest next to the valley. She kept complaining about how her feet hurt and how she was about to fall, but she still followed anyway.
I turned around and called out to her. She was startled, and fidgeted about three meters behind me.
"Could it be that you've forgotten your way back?"
Since her skin is a lot fairer than that of a typical Japanese person, it was really obvious when she blushed. Though she shook her head furiously, it seemed like I was spot on. I couldn't help but let out a sigh.
"Well, I was lost the first time I came here as well."
One single step in the wrong direction on the path from the seaside to the station, was all it took for one to get lost.
"It is not my first time. I have probably been here three times already."
"So you still can't remember the route despite having come here three times......"
"I have already said that is not how it is!"
"Why don't you go back by yourself then."
She gritted her teeth and glared at me. I had no choice but to cease arguing with her, and quietly continued walking out of the forest. On our way back, I saw a purple-colored truck pass us by. It was probably there to dump some trash. As the truck traveled farther away, the forest slowly regained its deep silence. The faint sounds of the truck, together with the sounds caused by the rubbing of tree branches, made me recall the rich ensemble of the piano concerto.
That was indeed a stunning experience that had left me breathless. But that miracle probably wouldn't have happened if this girl hadn't been playing the piano in such a special place. I stole glances at her as I walked on ahead.
Then again, where exactly have I seen her before? Could she be a forgotten friend of mine? Why else would she be so brazenly willful in front of me?
That can't be, right?
If I had met a girl that could leave such a deep impression on me before, I wouldn't have forgotten her.
After walking to the small town located in-between the mountains and the sea, filled with plenty of ramps and slopes, a cluster of houses suddenly came into view, along with the train station. Almost all of the decorative lights on the archway of the shopping street were no longer lit, but the four-story-high building—a relic from the Shouwa era—still had a Glico advertisement board on its roof. How nostalgic. To the left, a sign with the JR logo, as well as the station's name, was hanging off the top of what looked like a prefab house. Aside from the both of us and a few stray cats scrounging for leftovers, there were no other moving things at the entrance of the soba shop.
"Here we are."
"I can see that."
That was all she said before she rushed to the entrance of the station.
I just stood there blankly and considered what I should do next, but I couldn't even call out her name. Can't help it. That was the first time I had met her, and she had asked me to forget all about her as well.
I should just head back to collect some junk.
I turned away from her, and just as I was about to leave, someone spoke,
The voice belonged to a middle-aged policeman that was walking out of the small police station opposite of the bus rotary. It didn't seem like I was the one he was referring to though. She was petrified, and timidly turned around. The policeman went up to her and asked, "Eh, ain't you Miss Ebisawa?"
"...... Eh? Urm, well......"
Her face was ghostly white from the shock.
"Ahh, I'm right. Even your clothes fit the description. Your family's looking for you, right? Seems like you came somewhere around here the last time you ran away from home as well. In any case, follow me. I'll contact your family members."
A runaway girl huh...... Seems to be a repeat offender too, so it's best that I don't associate myself with her. As I resumed walking, passing by the policeman, I could feel her staring at me, requesting my help. Damn, I still noticed it in the end.
It was as though her earnest and teary gaze was saying "I'll hate you for life if you don't help me."
Stop it, me. Ignore her.
But it was all too late. I'm not fit to be a human being if I choose to walk away silently after seeing that gaze of hers.
Looking at the sweat-drenched back of the policeman, I spoke. He was about to take her back to the police station, and the expression on his face as he turned around seemed to suggest that he had only noticed my presence just then.
"I think you've mistaken her for someone else. You see, this girl here is on a trip with me."
The policeman's expression became funny, as though he had accidentally chewed on a snail or something.
"Hey, let's hurry up. We'll have to wait for a long time if we miss the incoming train."
"Ah, uh...... mmm."
She scooted away from the policeman as I gave him a nod, and together, we briskly walked towards the train station. I didn't know if he had understood what I had said, but there was no point in sticking around either.
After purchasing our tickets and passing through the gates, we snuck a peek in the direction of the bus rotary.
"Will that work...... You'll play along if the policeman catches on to us, right?"
"I, I......" The girl held onto her ticket and shifted her sight away from my face. "I did not ask for your help!"
"Fine, I'll just get the policeman then. It's not good to lie."
The girl's face turned red. She didn't speak a word, but she did repeatedly slap my back.
"The next time you run away from home, choose a location where your parents won't find you!"
"That is not it! Things are not as you think......"
So it seems like I was the one acting like a busybody. It can't be that she actually hates me? Hey, I offered her my help!
She suppressed her anger and shot me a glare, then walked towards the platform linked to the Kudari line. The opposite direction as me huh. I was slightly relieved, but felt a small sense of pity at the same time.
Just then, the station played a tune signifying the arrival of the train. It was a very familiar tune—Mozart's <Twelve Variations on "Ah vous dirai-je, Maman">.
The bulb in my head lit up all of a sudden. I got it! I remembered who she was. Yeah, didn't the police officer say earlier that her family's name was Ebisawa?
She was about to take the second step up the stairs, but was so surprised she stopped completely in her tracks. When she turned around, her fair face was dyed red. Her pair of eyes was like the dark cloudy sky just before a thunderous downpour.
No wonder I found her familiar—I had seen her on CD covers before, as well as on TV. She was the piano girl prodigy that had become the youngest winner of the International Piano Competition held in Eastern Europe—at just the young age of twelve. Her debut was met with a full house of applause as well. Ebisawa Mafuyu.
That mysterious lady had released quite a number of albums two and a half years ago, but she disappeared from the music scene at the age of fifteen.
And now, that mysterious figure was right in front of me, holding onto the handrail with an expression close to crying.
"...... You...... know me......?"
Her stuttering voice was nearly drowned out by the railway crossing, but I still nodded my head slightly. Not only did I know her, I even remembered all the titles of the songs she had released.
"Yeah, I do. Because I have all your CDs, and......"
"Forget it all!"
"Just, forget everything!"
I wanted to say something, but I could only watch as she ran up the stairs, her maroon hair fluttering behind her. Just then, the *ding ding ding* sounds that ring out during the lowering of the crossing barriers reached my ears; and for a while, all I did was stand there in a dazed state.
A human voice rang out from my side. I turned my head and saw a white silhouette on the platform opposite of me. We exchanged glances for a moment, then she, Ebisawa Mafuyu, swung her hands and threw something over.
A red object flew over the tracks. I extended my hands out in an attempt to catch it, but it hit my wrists and fell next to my feet. It was a can of cola.
The train then drove in-between us.
She stepped onto the train, and it left the station after closing its doors, leaving me all alone on the platform. The cola was rolling on the asphalt and was about to fall onto the tracks, but I picked it up before it was too late. It's still cold, so she probably bought it from the vending machine over there. Could she actually be treating this as a sort of thank you gift?
I had heard all her CDs before—though, obviously, I hadn't bought them myself. They had been given to my father for free, as he was a music critic. His collection of music increased by about a few hundred CDs each month, but her works were the only ones I never got tired of listening to. In fact, even the track order had left a deep impression on me. I enjoyed seeking out those unintentional glimpses of warm pulses amid that clear, steady and inanimate melody.
Then, my thoughts turned to the piece she had played at the dumping ground. That piece isn't on any of her CDs, right? If it was, I definitely would've remembered it.
What exactly did she face and encounter?
She didn't seem like someone that would play such a depressing tune.
Her last words kept reverberating in my ears—"Just, forget everything!"
I held the cola in my hands and sat down on a bench. Her voice, and that intriguing piano concerto, echoed in my head until my train arrived.
♪ ♯ ♫
That was what had happened to me during my spring break before high school. That unbelievable coincidence.
When I returned home, I continuously played the <Twelve Variations on "Ah vous dirai-je, Maman"> that was performed by Mafuyu on her CD. And as I listened to that, I thought back on the incidents of that day and couldn't help but wonder if everything had just been a dream. Because there was no way that that junk could resonate to a piano, or give off the sounds of an orchestra.
The only evidence that could prove that everything that had happened was real, was the cola that she had given me, which exploded on me the instant I pulled open the tab. Man, you really can't shake or throw carbonated drinks. After wiping the floor clean with a piece of cloth, it felt like that only remaining sense of reality had disappeared as well.
Even if she didn't want me to forget everything, I probably would've done so anyway. I'm a busy man, and I can't even remember the dream I had two days ago.
At that time, I obviously had no idea I would be reuniting with Mafuyu again under those circumstances.