chapter four – red turnip lanterns and the Winter Man
Dawn slowly approached the nameless village. Kazuya rocked back and forth in the rocking chair in the corner of the room, where he would wake up from a light doze and then fall back asleep, time and time again.
Each time he awoke, he found Victorique sleeping in a different position in another spot on top of the huge canopy bed, moving from one corner to the other. Half-dreaming, he wondered, Victorique… When did you move…?
The sudden pounding of a large drum announced the arrival of dawn at last. Next came the keen wail of a flute, high and thin, cutting through the dim light of daybreak.
Kazuya sprung awake. While he scrambled to his feet, Victorique was in the middle of drowsily climbing out of bed. She rushed over to the window, then turned to Kazuya who walked up behind her. His eyelids were still heavy with sleep, but Victorique was wide awake—the same way she always looked whenever they met in the conservatory, with those eyes that were quiet and yet sharp. Most of her long blond hair spilled out from her white satin bonnet, rippling down to the floor in golden waves.
“Good morning, Kujou.”
“…’Morning, Victorique. What was that just now?”
“Well, let’s see. My best guess is that…” As Victorique murmured this, she yanked on a cord that hung down from the ceiling.
The heavy velvet curtain swayed and parted to both sides.
Outside the window…
…a scene completely different from the previous day unfolded before them.
Unlike yesterday, when milky white fog had obscured almost everything but the stone balcony and the tall oak trees, today the air was clear, offering a good view far into the distance even though the sun was just starting to rise. It was a fine day, and a dry wind blew. The sound of drums vibrated the air, followed by the piercing cry of flutes.
Countless brightly colored flags fluttered in the wind, all of them depicting a coat of arms of a wolf on a black field.
Someone was splashing water—presumably holy water—toward the morning sky. The spray soared up to the balcony, leaving wet marks on the stone.
A whip cracked, and somewhere a gun was fired.
“My guess is that—”
Kazuya finished her words for her. “The midsummer festival already started, huh.”
They looked at each other. Then they ran out onto the balcony, leaned over the mossy stone railing, and let their eyes feast on the sights outside.
Bright red lumps were unsteadily entering the town square. No matter how Kazuya squinted, trying to figure out what the tottering shapes were, he couldn’t identify them. They seemed to be large floats, but they burned all over in a brilliant orange color like lumps of fire.
The villagers paraded through the square, shouting noisily, making yesterday’s impenetrable silence feel like a distant memory.
While the two of them were transfixed by the happenings in the square, a polite knocking came from the door. Kazuya responded, leaving the balcony to go back inside the room.
He opened the door, and in front of him was a young man with his long blond hair pinned back. He was taller than most of the villagers, and had an exceptionally beautiful face with eyes that were clear and candid. It was the headman’s assistant, Ambrose.
“…I was passing by in the hallway and heard voices, so I thought you might already be awake.”
Ambrose was carrying some strange-looking objects in his hands. One was a life-sized papier-mâché figure wrapped like a mummy in a cloth the color of yellow ochre, and the other was a wooden mask carved into a black, fearsome-looking face.
As Kazuya stared at them, Ambrose smiled. “These are a papier-mâché figure and a mask that we use during the festival. Do you find them unusual?”
“From where I’m standing, your belongings are far more unusual….”
Ambrose discreetly took a peek inside the room, his gaze wandering among the novel objects. Then he again gave Kazuya’s face a close inspection, and reached out his hand in curiosity. Kazuya jumped away from him. To have his cheeks pinched or his hair pulled was quite distasteful to him.
Alerted by the sound of voices, the doors to the other rooms opened one by one. Alain walked sleepily into the hallway, scratching his beard. Derek was wearing silk pajamas, and clearly expensive ones at that, but they were wrinkled, as if he had been tossing and turning in bed. Raoul sluggishly dragged his large body outside.
Finally, the door to Mildred’s room opened. She walked out into the hallway, her footsteps so loud that it was hard to believe they belonged to a woman. Her bright red curls bounced.
Victorique left the balcony and walked briskly toward Kazuya.
“Master Sergius may have mentioned this yesterday…. But our village’s midsummer festival celebrates a bountiful summer harvest, and acts as a rite to burn and defeat winter. And then we call back the spirits of our ancestors and let them see their descendants enjoying the blessings of the harvest,” Ambrose explained smoothly as he led the travelers to the town square. Since most of the villagers had assembled in the square, the manor was left deserted.
“We can’t let the church stay empty, so some people are gathered there. The rest of them are in the square.”
“It’s quite a different sight from yesterday,” remarked Kazuya.
Ambrose smiled. “That’s because everyone was busy preparing for the festival. We almost ran out of time to finish the red turnips.”
“The lanterns for the floats… Look!”
Once the group arrived at the square, their eyes widened in surprise as they took in the sight of the floats burning like huge round flames.
Arrayed all over the floats were small orbs that glowed orange. Taking a closer look, they saw that these were red turnips with their insides hollowed out and their outsides carved in a variety of patterns. Small candles stood inside of them, and their tiny flames flickered along with the movement of the floats. Each little flickering added up to make the floats appear as if they themselves formed shuddering flames, writhing in all directions.
“It’s beautiful,” Victorique said.
Ambrose heard her, and nodded happily. “The villagers were busy carving them. My job was to make this out of papier-mâché…. I’m not very handy, so it wasn’t an easy task.” He gently placed the mummy of yellow ochre onto the float.
“What’s that used for?” asked Kazuya.
“We call it the ‘Winter Man.’ At noon, the villagers will dress up in costumes, divide into two groups, and reenact the battle between the Winter Army and the Summer Army. The Winter Army wears brown clothing, and the Summer Army wears blue. The Summer Army finally vanquishes the Winter Army and sends them scattering, and we set fire to the Winter Man and the float it rides on. Then we celebrate the victory of summer with food, drink, and dance.”
“After that, the church is emptied. The church is a side door to the land of the dead, so our ancestors use it to return and witness our harvest. At the end of the festival, a returning ancestor wears this mask….”
Ambrose held up the fruit of his labor: the unearthly-looking mask.
“And dances in celebration of the harvest. The ancestor speaks to us in words we don’t understand. It is thought that those words are in the language of the dead.”
As Ambrose spoke, Harminia came up from behind him. Her eyes bulging, she stared hard at the mask that he was holding, then suddenly smiled so fiercely that it seemed her mouth would tear open, apparently appreciative of the quality of the mask. “Well done,” she muttered in a vanishingly soft voice.
Ambrose looked pleased. “This year, I’ll be the one wearing it.”
“…Because you’re in line to be the next headman,” Harminia said in a low voice. Kazuya and Victorique stared at her curiously.
Then she said in an even lower voice, “The headman is accompanied by a younger assistant. When the headman dies, the assistant takes his place. Master Sergius served as assistant to Master Théodore. That means Master Sergius thinks very highly of Ambrose.”
Kazuya and Victorique again gazed at Ambrose. His comely face, as finely featured as a noblewoman, was bright red. He shook his head in embarrassment. “It’s also because there aren’t enough young people. This village doesn’t have many children.”
The floats began to spin very slowly. A blur of red turnips turned round and round, painting red lines like an afterimage across the square.
While they were mesmerized by the sight, the bearded Alain suddenly clicked his teeth and exclaimed, “What rubbish!”
Harminia’s eyes popped out.
At this particular moment, the sound of drums and flutes had stopped, and the square happened to be temporarily enveloped in silence. Every single villager turned around. Their dark eyes roamed toward the group of travelers, searching for the origin of the voice.
Alain had been making such comments ever since he entered the village, but this was the first time he did so in such an attention-grabbing manner. Even he seemed to be surprised at the reaction, but it was too late for him to take back his words. He indignantly dug in his heels.
“To think that such superstitions still exist in this day and age. Uncharted territory? The village of the grey wolves? What a load of rubbish!”
This was normally Derek’s cue to chime in with his squeaky voice, but instead he merely stood silently beside him.
Alain snapped, a little nervously, “Right, Raoul?”
Finding himself suddenly called upon, Raoul cringed, shrinking his large body, and he scratched his chin in dismay. “…Y-yeah.”
“The spirits of your ancestors? You think you can bring those back? You’ve been making fools of yourselves all day!”
Alain still wasn’t done, but now Derek tactfully put a stop to him. “Yeah, they’ve sure been making a lot of racket. Hey, Alain, let’s go back inside and play some poker.”
Alain nodded, and the three of them started to stroll back to the manor. Harminia’s low, resonant voice called them to a halt. “Stop right there, good sir.”
In the meantime, the villagers had begun to amass behind her. They seemed to fuse together with Harminia as they stared at the three men with unnerving expressions. They stood motionless, wide-eyed and stony-faced. In their antiquated clothing, they could have been mistaken for a band of ghosts. When Alain looked back at them, his overconfident attitude crumbled, and he flinched.
“Wh-what do you want!”
“If you’re going to insult us, then get out of this village.”
“What? Some maid like you thinks she can tell a guest what to do?!” Alain shot back.
But Harminia wouldn’t be silenced. “The spirits of the dead really do…”
“R-really do what? Say it!”
“They really do come back!”
“They come down from the night sky, through the church and on to the square, and they speak in the language of the dead. We don’t understand what they say. But nothing can be hidden from them. So there is meaning in the midsummer festival.”
Harminia’s face made it clear that she believed in the festival with all her heart. She turned to Ambrose and glared at him sharply, silently ordering him to say something. The expression on his face wasn’t quite as fervent as her own, but she didn’t seem to notice that.
Just as Alain was about to shout even more stubbornly, Ambrose quietly stopped him. “Good sir, you have a right to your opinion, but if you are going to disrupt the festival, then I will have to ask you to leave.”
“…I, I’d rather not,” Alain muttered, suddenly starting to fidget. Apparently he wasn’t willing to leave the village.
The three young men formed a huddle and conferred with each other. Derek seemed to be scolding Alain shrilly. One of his reproachful whispers leaked out: “Wherever you go, you always have to pick a fight….” Raoul stood quietly, looking shaken.
After a while, Alain looked up and jokingly raised his hands. “Fine. I won’t disturb your festival. We’ll just stick to our rooms and keep our mouths shut. Okay?”
Ambrose smiled and inclined his head. Harminia scowled threateningly at the three men as they departed.
Now Ambrose was looking a little less cheerful than before. Kazuya said to him soothingly, “You know … we have a slightly similar custom in the country where I was raised.”
“In your country?”
“Yes, well … it’s an island nation, a long, long way from here by sea. We have this long-cherished custom of welcoming our ancestors’ return on a certain day in summer. Well, whether we actually believe in it or not might be a little complicated, but we go with our families to visit the graves and give offerings.”
“Wow … So in your country…”
Ambrose’s interest was piqued and he began to ask questions. Thus, for some time afterward, Kazuya ended up explaining the geography of his country and of the world, global affairs, and various other topics. To his surprise, Ambrose knew nothing of the Great War that had ended only a few years before. He knew that a conveyance called the airplane existed in the outside world, and remembered a lot more than usual flying overhead during that period.
The life he had lived was little removed from that of a hermit. But even though Ambrose’s lifestyle was medieval in every respect, he was startlingly quick to understand what was said to him, and over the course of a conversation no longer than ten minutes, instantly grasped all sorts of concepts. Like any healthy young person hungry for knowledge, he asked one carefully thought out question after another, and hungrily absorbed Kazuya’s answers. His clear green eyes sparkled with curiosity.
He really is smart! Kazuya thought admiringly. Now I can kind of see where the legend of the Grey Wolves came from. It’s almost like the conversation in that diary Victorique showed me, when that sixteenth century traveler met that young wolf in the mountains. The brilliant, silent Grey Wolves…
Ambrose’s questions were stretching on without end, and his thirst for knowledge remained unquenched. Finally, he took a breather, and then said, a little red-faced, “Long ago, when I was a child … a descendant of this village paid us a visit. Brian Roscoe was his name. I pestered him with my questions too, and in the end, Master Sergius gave me a harsh scolding.”
“Oh, I think I’ve heard that name before…. He’s the one who brought electricity to this village, isn’t he?”
“Yes. But he left as soon as he finished setting up the construction work,” Ambrose said wistfully.