3Notification of Maeda Isami's death reached his workplace, the JA.
Hearing it, Shimizu's breath held as he thought: "Again." To tell the truth, lately Shimizu had felt himself in the suspicious clutches of something. It was a sensation that was started by small affairs, piled upon by the vague suspicion that something was strange, a mounting sense of malaise.
For example, Shimizu thought as his fingers stopped tapping at the calculator as he surveyed his workplace that night. The Sotoba Japanese Agricultural Cooperative. At a glance it was no different from a small bank or credit union branch building. Despite employees still lingering about as it went on nine o'clock, one couldn't escape the impression of things being quite laid back.
The village had no bank or credit union. All there were were this JA building and the special post office. Most household kept their savings at the post office, and those who were farmers for the most part had accounts with the JA. Farmers or foresters had to have an account with the JA. And yet at the same time, it was more convenient to use the post office for practical reasons. So it had been only natural for households to have two accounts and to split savings between them but lately he had the feeling that that practice was in decline.
Some were in the habit of taking any business deposit that came in to their JA account, immediately transferring it to their postal account, then transferring what was needed back into the JA account to finance the mutual aid society loans and such. But even so on that particular month the money was delayed, the amounts having to be pulled from the accounts by debit. They were small amounts in total, but it was clear the frequency of such cases were increasing. There was no shortage of accounts that had frozen completely, whose payments had stopped coming in altogether, either. Especially amongst those not in the agricultural cooperative who just had accounts with them; there were many who were only investing members whose accounts had frozen. ---This was in itself not a terribly big deal. It wasn't enough to hamper their credit operations.
Maybe these things just happened. The JA was a credit union but the mutual aid society had a service window in the same building. The Mutual Aid society staff members frequently sold insurance to union members and non-union members alike, and in some cases collected installments. Even so, since this past summer the number of people moving out had increased. Even as they went out to the homes, there was nobody there, and payments went unpaid. There was no contact before or after. The three door to door solicitors had given up. ---And even this was, in itself, perhaps not such a big deal.
There were fewer staff members. This again was not severe enough to necessarily merit any special mention. The Chief had quit. There were other employees too who had resigned. There was one employee who, without resignation, had simply stopped coming. They had filed in with new staff but operating now with about half of their staff being new to the job, the office's work was many times over less efficient. Thanks to that, Shimizu was stuck doing overtime until the late hours like this.
It wasn't just that there was much work to be done, there were many discrepancies and inconsistencies that had to be smoothed over or required paperwork regarding them. Sotoba's JA didn't wish for these small discrepancies to leak to the outside. If these details got out, then the main office beyond Sotoba would noisily intervene. Originally this overtime work was to avoid making that necessary, after all all of the discrepencies were quite small matters, and everyone was eager to handle it internally.
And there was death. --Since that summer, the deaths continued throughout the village. Shimizu's daughter had died in the middle of August. And since then there had been an abundance of rumors of this or that person dying. Were this many people really dying, Shimizu expressed skeptically, but his coworkers just smiled sympathetically and spoke of the lingering summer heat, leaving it at that. All of Shimizu's coworkers were nervous on the matter, he thought, perhaps because his daughter had died. Once it became undeniably and fully and properly Fall, his coworkers smiled faded.
Not only did their smiles change, their entire demeanor did.
He had a persecution complex, Shimizu himself thought. All the same, Shimizu did have the feeling that he really was being isolated. As September started, they begun remodeling. It was only a matter of rearranging their desks but as they did, Shimizu's desk was relocated to the corner by the wall. He had decreased direct contact with his coworkers. The female clerk who brought tea kept Shimizu's teacup alone separate from everyone else's. Even when he used the disinfectant in the tea kettle room and the restroom, people hesitated to accept things he handed them.
It was around that time, he thought. The time when the word "epidemic" started to be heard back and forth between those in the office. Lately, the modifier "a new strain" had been affixed to that rumor. And each time somebody gave word to it, everyone averted their gazes from Shimizu at once, closing their mouths.
He was being avoided, Shimizu felt. He lost his daughter. So Shimizu was unclean. He could feel with certainty that that was what they were thinking.
Minute uneases piled up, indeed small unpleasantries, oddities, incidents leaving a bizarre impression. As those piled up, they formed an unseen wall between Shimizu and those in the society around him. Betrayed by the outside world, alienated, rejected. He couldn't place his faith in anything. Deprived of the relief that came with a sense of belonging, Shimizu had nowhere to turn to.
Shimizu had only lost his daughter. With his daughter, merely a tenth grader, had been swept away, a hole was left in his home. Shimizu thought of himself as a victim. He was the one hit by calamity and disaster. None the less, everyone around him was treating Shimizu like a perpetrator. Why, on top of losing his daughter, did he have to be treated like this as well?
Since this summer, something was out of line. Shimizu couldn't avoid thinking that. Something was strange in this village. There were those who said it was an epidemic but Shimizu didn't believe that. If his daughter died of an epidemic, why was Shimizu still fine? And his wife and father. They had nothing wrong with them. Even the doctor didn't say anything.
At the same time, he knew that the situation was one that could only be explained by an epidemic. Indeed the deaths were continuing. Having actually lost his daughter to it, Shimizu's sense of crisis was much deeper than that of those around him. The string of sudden deaths was something he could see spreading faster. If this went on, wouldn't the village itself die out entirely?
Since that summer the village was strange.
Yes, since they had moved into that mansion. They moved in in the middle of the night, into that strange house, and before Megumi's death she had climed up that hill towards Kanemasa.
Shimizu accepted that his suspicion was irrational. None the less, day by day that conviction grew until it became a firm belief.
The agony that befell him, all of it was caused by Kanemasa. He couldn't shake off the feeling that his pain had been entirely caused by those who had transferred into town.