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Seijō no Ran #3

Juuni Kokuki — 十二国記
(The Twelve Kingdoms)

Seijō no Ran — 青条の蘭
(The Blue Orchids)

By Ono Fuyumi — 小野不由美

Translated by o6asan

prologue chap.1 chap.2 chap.3 chap.4 chap.5 chap.6 chap.7 chap.8 epilogue

3

   After leaving Yosen the snow continues to fall and it is covering within an hour as far as the eye can see. Hyōchū rushes single-mindedly in the very chilly air.
   He goes further and further, but there are neither villages nor hamlets. The faint traces of the roads branching from the major road still remain, so villages and hamlets would have been present there in the past. There are the roads but there is nothing where the roads lead.
   On his way, he finds a tree that looks black from a distance. The tree branches are hanging low like a big umbrella.―it is a village tree. Its color turned black and stands lonely in the wasteland. The tree died because of losing residents.
   There is no village shrine that should have the village tree, and there are no houses that should surround the village shrine nor walls that should surround the houses. The land undulations as dim traces remain in the desolate wintry field.
   Hyōchū strikes into silence and stops slightly. The dead village tree is the evidence that the prayer died. A village, it means 25 houses, all of them are extinct. By disaster, rebellion or starvation. The dead village tree will be broken into pieces from the root in a short time.―It resembles to the beech attacked by the disease is fallen down.
   At first, Hyōchū as well as most of the people considered that abnormal changes of beech were not serious matter. At that time, the beeches which died were limited in deep mountains. Besides, beeches were originally no use for people. He thought there was no impact on the lives of people even if beeches died.
   However, Hōkō had recognized this abnormal changes as a crisis from the beginning.
   “It looks as if beeches try to become stones. I’ve never heard such a disease.”
   “Things can happen. It will subside in the near future.” Hyōchū answered at the time.
   The winter of the year when his father died, beeches with discolorations could be seen here and there. Two years later the dead beeches began to fall down, and the two further years the number of them reached abnormal. Nevertheless Hyōchū as well as the people lived in mountainous areas had rather consider it was not serious disasters but pleasing incidents.
   The beeches dried thoroughly and then fell down on their own. People could save the trouble of logging and the fallen trees did not decay even if they were allowed to leave there, so the people could carry them out in time with the market demand. Besides, they fetched high prices.
   “It is blessing. It gives people help. Actually, beeches have no use even if they are in abundant supply.”
   A lot of beech forests were originally in the north area of the country. But people dared not carry out the abundant beeches in the past because of their having no use.
   The people can not depend on very small beechnuts and the nuts have bad years basically. They have poor availability of food, and they take from three to five decades until having flowers and nuts. Therefore no one is planting beeches actively in preparation for a famine, and the beeches are not help to people even if someone planted them. Around that time, people were very suffering from hunger. The people would have been to pick up any kind of fruits as food even if they grow up in very deep mountains. But unfortunately, beeches were always bad years at the time. Such young trees charcoal was made from were cut down entirely, the remaining was just the big trees that had no utility value.
   Suddenly, people were able to use them as timber. The people lived in the mountainous area and were under original disadvantages about farmland were very delighted with them as godsend. The several villagers entered the mountains and hauled the fallen trees out. Then they eked out their existence by on the money received. Hyōchū worried about the following things rather than the beech disease. Local public officials had their eyes on that the beeches suffering from this disease fetched high prices, so they tried to monopolize the market with the exclusion of people.
   Such mountains under the jurisdiction of Sanshi belong to the country rather than the people. So basically the government does not permit that the people enter there and make profits through something which they grab sales. Therefore one behavior that the local public officials excluded the people was right, but another behavior that they had the all benefits in their own pockets was wrong. They signed secret illegal agreements with lumber dealers and sold at a high price. Originally, the profits should go to the national treasury, but most of them disappeared somewhere in the local government office. If the profits went into the national treasury at least, the wealth of them was going to give welfare for people at last. But, the disappearance gave nothing. The government that noticed it tried hard to cope with the dictatorial acts of the local public officials, but this meant national public officials wanted to get the profits into their own pockets, hence, there were no difference for people about the money made by fallen beeches disappeared somewhere else.
   “In the state An, they confiscate beeches from the market before someone can even say something. Recently, lumber dealers, on alert for this, do not make payment until the beeches selling. When the people hauled the fallen trees down from the mountains and brought them in the market, they got total loss if the trees were confiscated. The officials of the state An can make big money with no resources by selling on all of them.”
   Hōkō wore a stern expression against Hyōchū’s sigh, which was very unusual for him.
   “Such things are not a serious problem.”
   Hyōchū suspiciously looked at his old friend face. Hōkō looked like getting very irritated. This was rare for him who was a very peaceful man.
   “Everybody says the same things when I talk about it―but that is out of the problems.”
   “What’s the matter with you?”
   Hyōchū asked and Hōkō replied in a bitter voice.
   “If this goes on, the mountains will get broken.”
   Hyōchū looked at his serious face and thought “Oh, yes”. He knew Hōkō loved mountains very much. So, Hyōchū thought that the mountains lost their original circumstances and got broken was very painful and very unbearable for Hōkō. Actually Hōkō liked the beech forests around his home village. He had always said they are the most pleasant places.
   “I know your feelings but your concerns give no effects to people. People stand on the edge of life or death at this time.”
   “Hence I tell you!”
   Hōkō raised his voice.
   “―If this goes on, the mountains will get broken. And it would swallow lives of people and villages.”
   Hōkō was desperate.
   “The animals in mountains live on beechnuts. Even poor years for nuts, pretty number animals live on them. But if this goes on, they come to nothing. Then what comes the next?”
   “The next?―”
   The nuts were acceptable food for the small animals in mountains. And beech forests become to have rich undergrowth, which Hōkō once pointed. The undergrowth, a various kind of shrubs and grass, grows thick, so this is very good for large herbivores, such as deer. Then omnivores and carnivores that eat them also gather. In other words, all of them depend on beeches. The mountains which are covered with beech forests have a rich ecosystem.
   “Animals come down from mountains and attack the area of humans. Bears attack humans and mice eat what little grain people have. We can hunt bears but what can we do about a lot of groups of mice?”
   Hyōchū opened his mouth with a startled look. Exactly―in the following year when beeches had good harvest, bears often attack houses. The previous year the beeches have good harvest, so more bears can survive than usual and the bears meet the shortage of food in the following year and then attack humans.
   “I heard several times…Mice has increased.”
   Hōkō nodded yes.
   “But in fact mice has decreased in mountains. They are not increasing. They come down from mountains because of their habitats.”
   Hōkō added words with a serious look.
   “Beeches keep water well. Haven’t you seen the rain water flows along the trunk of a beech?”
   “Yes…I have. When I took cover from the rain under a beech, I had more terrible experience.”
   “Right. The beech form is able to run rain water along the trunk.”
   The water is gathered nurtures the algae attached to the bark, and the nutrients of them are leaked out and carried to the root. Moreover, beeches are yellowing and deciduous in autumn, so the beech bases have a lot of leaf mold. Because of this, the soil of beech forests is black, soft and thick, which is very rich and can keep a large amounts of water. This protects from drying of the surrounding mountains.
   “If the beech forests have disappeared, we have drying in summer. It is not only that, the beech roots hold down the mountains. Their roots which are suitable for the bulk crawl into the underground and they stop the mountain soil by sewing. There are nothing that hold the mountains if all of them fall down. It is OK in winter―because the snow piles up. But the snow melts in spring. The melted snow is sucked into the ground slowly and deeply.”
   All beech forests naturally store water and at the place the snow falls. Then melting and soaking through. As a result, the huge water loosens the ground. The mountains could collapse at a stretch from deep parts if there is nothing to sew the surface of them.
   “The mountains of this area are steep. The very steep slopes. Among the steep mountains, large and small villages and hamlets are scattered. Imagine if landslides once happen there.”
   The landslides would swallow houses and people.
   “Even if the people survive, in spring rivers and farm lands would be covered with the landslides and the people could not plant seeds. It would be too late in the season of sowing even if they have hard restoration work. Then, they could not expect the harvest after summer. Besides, water is scarce in the mountains without beech forests. It definitely dry in summer. Even if they finally reach the harvest, animals of the mountains would flock to the poor one.―If things go badly, it might become a real famine.”
   Finally, Hyōchū understood Hōkō’s sense of crisis. The reason why he understood was, perhaps, that one of Hyōchū’s jobs was to go into the mountains. Besides, he originally grew up in the mountain village and he as well as Hōkō was familiar with mountains. He knew about mountains very much due to his duty. So, he could really understand the situations when it was explained. In fact, the small abnormal changes that implied Hōkō’s prediction were increasing in the mountains. None of them was not enough to disturb the people life, but what happens if they chain, to imagine the worst-case scenario was possible.
   “But―what can we do?”
   Beeches were dying because of the unidentified epidemic. They have no way to combat it.
   “It’s the problem”, Hōkō put his head in his hands.
   “These few years, I’ve tried a lot of things I think of to prevent the epidemic. But no effect yet.”
   “Anyway, fell the sick beeches―”
   “I tried, but less effective. Logging and incineration are the best way, but there is no difference because the beeches are lost. And they are huge, so the epidemic spread is very faster than the trees burned.”
   “Any drugs?”
   “No. I tried all drugs. some of them are possible to slow the progression somewhat, but I didn’t find effective one.”
   “So, we can do nothing about it.”
   “Nothing. When a beech died and was incinerated, to plant another tree in the same place is marginally effective thing. We immediately plant trees that are fast-growing and good root spread.”
   “The trees that make nuts, oak, chinquapin, camphor and hackberry―”
   “However beeches kill other trees, moreover, it’s hardly possible that the growing speed of the planted trees surpasses the spread speed of the epidemic.”
   “…What should I do?”
   “You should look for something.”
   Hōkō took Hyōchū by the arm.
   “Look for the plant as a drug from yaboku. It is the only hope.”
   Hyōchū looked at Hōkō’face. Hyōchū is Chikan Sekijin. This is exactly his duty. To go into fields and mountains and to look for new useful plants and animals from ranka of yaboku. he fruits of plants drop and take root there since they are not able to move by themselves. The following years they might spread more on their own if they once took root in the ground, but in the meantime, other animals or plants might expel them. So, it is necessary for humans to select the seedlings rooted if they actively obtain useful plants. To do it is Sekijin’s duty.
   Hyōchū is a national public official, but he had no qualification to participate in the national administration. He just had survived by a salary from the government. Hyōchū had what he should have done for the people and the country at last. And Seiin which was the home village of Hyōchū and Hōkō was located at the foot of the mountain covered with beech forests.
   ―He decided he must do it.
   But at that time, he never expected such long years after his resolution.
   Hyōchū chokes a cold regret down, and then he looks away from the dead black village tree, which he can see through the snowfall. He bends his head for avoiding the thick and fast snow, and hastens his steps single-mindedly.

prologue chap.1 chap.2 chap.3 chap.4 chap.5 chap.6 chap.7 chap.8 epilogue