“Freckles, are you done yet?” Chou’u asked. He was sitting on a tree stump, kicking his feet.
(That’s why I didn’t want him to come.)
The brat is fickle. Though it’s fine to bring him along, she could see him becoming baggage. No doubt the hag told her to bring the boy along to get him out of the way of the manservants’ work. What lonely.
Maomao ignored Chou’u ’s complaints and cut the grass growing at the roots of a tree. She only wanted to use the buds, but the sorting will come later.
“Shut up. You were the one who wanted to come along,” Maomao said as she thrust the medicinal herb into the jute bag.
Chou’u placed his hands on his lap and looked at Maomao with displeasure. “But I’m tired.”
The walking distance wasn’t too great, but it’s hard to walk on grass and dead leaves. She understood that this will be tiring for Chou’u whose body was still numb. There’s nothing she could do about it. Even so, Maomao wasn’t going to spoil him.
“Then wait here. I’m going to go deeper in,” she said.
“Ehhh—” Chou’u’s mouth gaped open. He looked like he wanted to say something to her. “Are you leaving me behind!”
“You’re tired, right? Wait for me.”
Chou’u twisted his face in reluctance and got off the tree stump. As the crone had mentioned, some people are the type to get lonely. It’s quite common among manservants and little girls in the pleasure district.
“I’m going! I’m going, so don’t leave me behind!”
Chou’u hobbled after Maomao. She looked at him coldly as she headed deeper into the forest.
The forest was growing with various types of trees. Since there were a lot of broadleaf trees, there would be a lot of fruits in autumn. Conifer trees were suited for timber products, but it seems that these were mostly found in the forests of the northern region.
Maomao ate a raspberry she found along the way. It was fine that Chou’u was copying her, but his mouth got red and sticky.
“They are just starting to grow,” she said, not stopping her raspberry picking.
“Freckles! Can you eat this mushroom?” Chou’u said. He found a small mushroom on a dead tree.
She thought that the mushroom would be found a little further north, but to think that they would even grow here. Maomao picked the small mushroom.
“Is it edible?” he asked.
“Unfortunately, this isn’t tasty. Also, it’s not poisonous.”
In other words, it was something Maomao had no interest in.
Chou’u dropped his shoulders in disappointment.
She proceeded happily, having found reishi along the way, and then came upon a lake. This forest used to be a large enough that it also surrounded the lake but it grew smaller and scattered due to the paddies.
What’s left of the divided forest was adjacent to a different village. Rather, it might have been divided when the village got built.
Since there were plants that only grew by the waterside, Maomao headed towards the lake. She could see a small island right in the centre. There were warding ropes at the boundary between the forest and the lake. In times past, it was said that places of water were entrances to the other world. The small island in the lake would be for that reason too – as a small shrine. She had heard before that the guardian of the lake resided there, and that the said-guardian transformed into a large snake. The saying to not kill snakes must have come from there.
And then, there was a small hut on the bank of the lake that managed all of that.
Maomao headed for that small hut.
The small hut had a raised floor. It seems that lake water rises up to this small hut when it rains heavily – it was for that reason. There were markings on the pillars of the hut showing how high the water went.
Chou’u pointed and looked at the water level marks with interest. Maomao went up the stairs and peered inside the hut.
A hairy old man emerged from inside as if he had noticed her gaze. “Since I haven’t seen you for a couple of years, I thought you became a bride and left or something.”
“Too bad. I’m an old maid,” she said.
“Considering all that, it looks like you have a big child.”
He’s such a sharp-tongued old man, as usual, Maomao thought. It seems he’s an old acquaintance of her adoptive father Ruomen; a doctor in the capital a long time ago. His skill was good, but due to his eccentric personality and misanthropy, he’s now retired and living in such a remote place.
Nowadays he scraped by while picking medicinal herbs. He’s the manager of the shrine, but it seems it wasn’t a big deal in the end. There was no boat on the lake. It doesn’t even look like he went to the shrine either.
“Here. If there’s what you want, take it and go.” The old man laid out the herbs he had dried on the wall on the shabby table. It would be quicker to buy rare and out of season herbs from this old man.
Maomao went inside the hut to appraise those herbs.
The old man sat on a chair and stooped forward. He’s more than ten years older than Ruomen so she had no idea when he will keel over.
From the three years she hadn’t met him, it looks like he has aged even more.
However, he had dried the herbs carefully and the quality wasn’t bad either. And besides, she thought that the amount he gathered was quite steady for a senile old fool.
“I’m relieved that you’re not senile, but you’ve gathered some pretty nice stuff,” she said.
“The old maid really has a sharp tongue.”
At the words directed to Maomao, the one who laughed was Chou’u. She glowered at him with narrowed eyes and set the herbs she needed on the cloth bag.
“What are you on about. I recently got a helper,” the old man continued.
“A helper I see. A village child? You’re doing pretty well, I see.”
Maomao looked at Chou’u purposely. “What the heck,” the boy pouted.
“Not at all. It’s a guy I recently picked up in the capital. He does pretty well. Come on, if you spread rumours…”
When he said that, she heard a voice from the upper floor.
“Grandpaaa. I got what you asked for. Huh? Guests?”
She somehow recognised that absolutely cheerful voice.
The one who showed up swinging a large cloth bag was a young man who was wearing a cloth as an eyepatch.
(So that’s why I recognised his voice.)
Standing there was the man with a face full of smallpox scars who should have been looking for work in the capital, Kokuyou.
“Wellll, and then, you see, they told me that they didn’t want a doctor with such a horrible face—”
The man called Kokuyou was once again talking to her with a voice that didn’t sound sorry for himself at all.
This talkative man, when he noticed Maomao, went to chat with her nonstop. The old man asked her “You know him?” and Chou’u was surprised, “You sure know a lot of weird big bros.”
To put it simply, when this man tried to start out as a doctor at the capital, he visited several clinics. And then he was asked about the reason for his eyepatch every time and the idiot honestly showed them his scars. The doctors lacking in knowledge told him to never come back again as he’ll spread the disease and chased him out. The doctors with the knowledge knew that he wasn’t infectious anymore, and still, while they were doctors, they were also a service business. There was no simple reason to employ a strange man with an eyepatch.
And amid that, he said he got picked up by this old man who, spurred by his ageing body, came to deliver the ordered medicine herbs. They had happened to meet as he was being chased out from a clinic.
The old man may be misanthropic, but he was also a doctor with attested skill. Since he was at the age where it was hard to move around, he had been wishing for a helper. When Kokuyou was asked for his knowledge as a doctor as a trial, he was more decent than the doctor realised and that’s why he’s here. If he’s in such a remote place, the eyepatch man wouldn’t make as much as a racket than in the capital, and it seems it had been explained to the village chief.
“Hahaha. The world is tough. It’s fine if I can eat for the time being I guess—”
With Kokuyou in this state, and the old man having got himself a good helper, both of them seemed satisfied for now.
(If it’s like this, would it be better if I called him to my place?)
Maomao felt that she had done something a little wasteful, but it was too late. Even if she were to bring him back, he would be worked hard by the madam like her adoptive father Ruomen, so it might be better that Kokuyou was here.
Kokuyou laid out the medicinal herbs he newly harvested.
“I just picked them. They’re fresh—.”
Chou’u looked up at the griming young man. The stupid squirrel-like face approached Kokuyou, hands stretched out.
“Big bro, under this eyepatch, what happened?”
“Ah, wanna see?”
It’s gross, Kokuyou warned beforehand as he took off his eyepatch. Chou’u raised a terribly rude shout and slapped the man’s shoulder.
“Big bro, that’s such a waste. Even though you looked fine before, with this you can’t work in the service industry.”
“I know right. I don’t think my sociability is bad though—”
Maomao ignored the carefree duo and started to appraise the herbs. She squinted at a large leaf she had never seen before. “What’s this?”
“Tobacco leaves,” Kokuyou said as he joked around with Chou’u.
Tobacco. Pipes were habitually used by the madam and the prostitutes. Surprisingly, it didn’t spread to the masses. Maomao had repaired a broken pipe before and tried to return it to its previous owner since she had thought it was quite an important thing.
The pipe leaves are a luxury grocery item. The stingy madam smokes because she is dependent on it. The courtesans or the madam probably can’t go without smoking. Smoking too much is detrimental to the body – her adoptive father Ruomen had also said.
As far as Maomao knew, the leaves are often used by visitors. Since she had only seen the dried and smashed version, she hadn’t known.
“The cultivation itself isn’t that difficult.”
Saying that at the side was the old man.
“Is that so?” Maomao studied the leaves with great interest. She thought that if she cultivated these in her garden, she could get good business. However, would he simply give her the seeds?
At most, he could split the leaves with her, but she wondered what would happen if this got the courtesans into the habit of smoking were she to stock up on them cheaply.
She just tried asking.
“So, how much are you selling this for?”
“This is not for sale.” The old man picked up the tobacco leaves and hung several stacks under the roof.
(For personal use?)
However, there doesn’t seem to be any smoking instrument in this house. She had never seen him smoke either.
In response to Maomao’s question, the old man lifted a jar from the floor and set it on the long table. When he removed the lid, a characteristic stench wafted out.
“Grandpa, this stinks!” Chou’u gave a show of pinching his nose. He peered in while pinching. “This can’t be drinkable, yeah?”
There was a brown coloured liquid inside.
“Even if I make a mistake, I wouldn’t drink it. You’ll die. It has tobacco leaves,” the old man said.
“Ueeeh, why are you doing something like this again?” Chou’u said, sitting on the wooden box that was set on the floor.
“It’s used as a snake repellent.”
Tobacco leaves are poison when you ingest it. And she knew that this poison is also effective for insects. It was the first time Maomao knew that it could also be useful against snakes. Insects were a different matter, but she always caught snakes so she never thought about repelling them.
“Don’t kill snakes, it’s because there’s that kind of b******* around. I’ll have to be careful since it’ll be rough when it becomes a major problem,” the old man spat. Kokuyou prepared tea with a grin. Chou’u’s eyes sparkled when he saw mantou(steamed buns) appear from the shelves.
“Even though they had about ten or so years for them to worry about the shrine. To tell me that after all this time that the messenger of the snake god appeared.”
“Ahahah. Witch doctors are the worst—” Kokuyou also agreed with a cheerful voice. Does he even have a personal grudge?
As for Maomao, she thought it was a little mysterious. Be as it may that it was the will of the previous village chief, to think that there are villagers who would hate killing snakes to that extent. Was it because they had originally worshipped the snake god here?
“Did that witch doctor have such a persuasive power?” She asked casually, and the old man snorted.
“Haha, about that. It looked the deeply religious guys somehow got bewitched.”
Foxes aside, to think that they would get bewitched by a snake.
(It’s already bad enough that foxes are the ones that bewitch people.)
When Maomao tilted her head, Kokuyou opened the window of the hut. The lake and shrine were in sight.
The old man looked outside and stroked his shaggy beard.
“I didn’t see it firsthand. According to what they say, that witch doctor…”
He said that they floated on the surface of the water of the lake, danced upon it as they headed for the shrine.
“…said that they are the messenger of the guardian of the lake.”
And that was what he told her.