His name was Hideji. Kosuzu had apparently already met him when they had just been children—her mother insisted that they had known each other since way-back-when because the carpenter’s wife would occasionally come to the bookstore with her child, and he would play together with Kosuzu. She didn’t remember anything like that happening but decided anyway to treat him a little nicer than the rest of the village boys.
She would’ve treated him nicely regardless.
Kosuzu was in the middle of running an errand for her uncle, who needed something from the potter, who in turn needed something from the weaver. She ran laps under the heat until she bumped into the carpenter’s son. He had dark-brown hair that curled at the edges, as if it never set right, and green eyes that looked like they’d be better off staring at the clouds. Her heart might have skipped a beat if she hadn’t elbowed his bag of rice open, scattering white grains all across the countryside.
There was a moment where all she could hear were the cicadas laughing at her. Her eyes briefly met the boy’s before she bowed shamefully. As she apologized, though, her body suddenly forgot how to function under all the sunlight, and she collapsed onto him.
If her face hadn’t already been burnt red from the heat, it certainly was after that.
She expected him to jerk back and look at her with disgust, but instead, he placed a palm to her forehead, steadied her, and took her hand, pulling her gently to her home. She didn’t know how he had known where her house was—except she did, because perhaps he had remembered playing together with her as as a child. At least, that’s what she hoped for, because then maybe he treated her nicer, too.
It was around the time she reached fourteen when the other village girls began to turn heads. They started getting uncomfortably close to boys while she watched from afar—from the safety of Suzunaan. Her mother thought that Kosuzu would be a late bloomer, but her daughter was not so like-minded. She had more bone structure than curves—especially where men loved to look—and didn’t look like she’d grow into a healthier figure any time soon. Her embarrassment aside, she refused to partake in the pubescent merry-go-round that the other girls loved so much. Kosuzu understood books. They had structure, reason, and rules. But men—they were nothing like books.
Except Hideji. She understood him, if only a little. He, like Kosuzu, paid the others no mind and instead opted to spend his youth with his tools, as she did with her books. So she thought, maybe he doesn’t understand girls. And maybe he doesn’t care like—like me. As much as her thoughts brought her relief, they also brought her a peculiar feeling of frustration.
She didn’t understand men, but most of all, she didn’t understand herself.
It wasn’t until she started her second decade that she finally sorted herself out. She understood herself. She felt secure. She could talk to men without feeling so squeamish.
Not that it was ever a frequent occurrence. Unsurprisingly, the bookstore very rarely attracted the attention of village men. Except one—and of course, it was him: the carpenter, formerly known as the carpenter’s son. He had quietly inherited the family business when his father had retired after throwing out his back, though Kosuzu hadn’t believed a word of it—she’d seen his father carrying an entire log into the workshop just the other day.
On days the carpenter didn’t have immediate business, he would visit Suzunaan and thumb through a book in silence. He would read fiction, historical documents, mythological text, self-help books, instructional manuals. Either he had a voracious appetite for literature, or he wasn’t picky.
At some point, these visits to Suzunaan became regular, and Kosuzu had half a mind to kick him out. But when she asked her mother about it, her mother would say that Kosuzu didn’t understand. Well, she didn’t because Suzunaan wasn’t a library. It was a business—but her mother would laugh freakishly loud whenever she said that.
The day was routine, as the two of them shared the table in silence, each absorbed in their own books. Not a single word was uttered that day until the sharp crack of fireworks rumbled through Suzunaan’s walls.
Oh, Kosuzu thought, I forgot. Today’s the festival, isn’t it? She looked up from her book and stared idly through the windows of the bookstore, watching from the inside. Several people she knew passed by—some of them were holding hands, some of them not. Great. She was happy for them, somewhat.
“I wonder,” she said, “if I’m destined to be small and unwomanly forever.”
Then she froze. Kosuzu had meant only to think that, but, without thinking, she had let her lips wander. She’d forgotten that she wasn’t alone.
Hideji set his book down.
And he said, “You’re fine the way you are.”
She raised her book up to hide her face.
“Oh,” she said. “I see.”
The rest of the evening returned to silence—or maybe it didn’t. Kosuzu wasn’t sure because her mind was swimming with thoughts of him.
Youkai. To Kosuzu, it was a word with baggage. She thought, maybe, just maybe, if I were unlucky, I would have become one. And maybe, I would have been killed. Some part of her still longed for adventure and excitement outside of the human world. But every other part of her was a coward, and maybe that was why she returned to being Suzunaan’s bookkeeper.
They were at the table again. Hideji was staring hard into a book, but she reached out to stroke his hand. Normally, she would have only managed for a moment before blushing and taking her hand back, but her near run-in with death made the embarrassment seem trivial by comparison. Hideji shut his book closed and took her hand in his. Kosuzu was sure that he was going to lose his page, but she got the feeling that it wasn’t terribly important at the moment.
She tried to lean forward to kiss him, but wasn’t tall enough to reach across, and so she slipped onto the tabletop instead, letting go of his hand to hold herself upright.
She coughed away her embarrassment, dusted off her sleeves, and sat back down in shame.
But he stood, walked to her side of the table, and leaned down to kiss her. It was brief—only enough contact for her to register what was happening, but in that moment, she understood a little more why romance novels always sold so well. By the time she was stammering out words, he was already back into his book.
Afterward, she decided that, from then on, their mutual reading time would be best done in her own home after Suzunaan closed for the day. They both took the same table, so the only thing that changed was the time of day. It worked best for the both of them—he would stop leaving the workshop early, and she would tend to the customers instead of reading at the table, making herself hard to approach.
The day after was slow, even for Suzunaan, so Kosuzu was left to her own devices. While waiting for customers, she had somehow finished the entire Unbeliever’s Pledge. It was a cynical book that described how love didn’t exist and, pretentious as it had been, she worried if it were right. Human life and emotions—they felt all ephemeral to her.
She wondered whether her relationship with the carpenter would stand the test of time. She had kissed him and held his hands enough times that it had become routine. He’d kiss her on the cheek hello, and she’d kiss him on the lips farewell. The butterflies in her stomach must have migrated elsewhere. Was that okay? She let that question simmer in her mind until she closed up shop and led the carpenter to her room. As they sat down, she realized that the answer was obvious—why else would she spend evening after evening in silence together with him?
He rarely bothered her while she was reading, and even when he did, she didn’t mind. Because it was him. Anyone else, and she would have shushed them until she was satisfied. As much as she loved books, she loved the time she spent with him more.
Will I think the same a year from now? Or two? Or ten? The rest of our lives?
She wanted certainty that her answer would remain yes, so, as if to confirm, during their reading time, she casually interrupted by curling up on his lap and kissing him on the cheek. He seemed to find it increasingly difficult to focus on his book, finally reaching around her shoulders to recover his pressed flower bookmark on the table and setting the book aside, bookmark in place.
It still doesn’t suit him, she thought. It was reluctantly his—Kosuzu had gone to her garden on a whim one day, and pressed the flowers onto the bookmark herself. Still, the fact that he kept that on his person made her want to kiss him more.
So she did. It was the kind of kiss where she could barely reach him—Kosuzu had to wrap her arms around his neck, hoist herself up, and crane her neck to brush her lips against his. The carpenter’s chair, however, did not appreciate her efforts and toppled over, taking its two humans with it. After the clatter, Kosuzu found herself straddling the carpenter. Her cheeks burned a modest red, though she took the opportunity to lean down and kiss him again—an honest one, this time.
Their eyes wandered not to each other but to the closet where the futon was stored. There was a brief moment of mutual understanding as they looked back at one another, and they put aside their shame, getting off each other at once to lay out the bedroll.
There’s something wildly indecent about a man and a woman laying out a futon for two, thought Kosuzu as she took out the comforter. I wonder if he thinks the same.
He must have. Dozens of implications had to be running through his head as he sat cross-legged on the tatami mats, next to the futon, and staring into the set of pillows. Kosuzu, however, couldn’t wait and dragged him to the bedding.
As the two sat neatly on the futon, he pulled her in closer, and, as much as Kosuzu hated cliches, she found his calloused hands to be quite lovely. Her mind wandered to those racy books found in the corner of Suzunaan where a rugged foreigner with a wild mane and a hulking body would whisk a small-breasted woman away to make love to her all night—and sure, the carpenter was no blue-eyed, chiseled man, but he was close enough, right?
His hand traveled to her cheek, and then closer to her lips. She gave his index fingers a playful bite, and the two laughed together as they sank deeper into the mattress. Her dress came off, slowly, piece by piece by the hands of her lover, and shame colored her cheeks when she was laid bare to him. Though her embarrassment rose, she quelled it and pushed her breasts together with her hands, laying upon the man her expectant gaze.
A few things went through her mind as she did this: One, she was stupid. Two, she wondered whether her modest chest was good enough. And three, she was irredeemably and undeniably stupid. It wasn’t like she was jealous of the other women in the village, but girls two-thirds her age had a figure better than she did, and she wondered if that mattered to him.
He softened his gaze and smiled as if to say that she was fine.
Of course I was fine. He only had eyes for me. Stupid me. Self-conscious me. She berated herself some more but found herself giddy because she knew—and she knew well—that the carpenter would only look at her, that he had chosen her and not any of the other girls.
An embrace took her out of her mental preoccupations. As the physical space between them closed, he put a tender kiss to her cheek.
Instantly, Kosuzu fell apart. She liked him, very much so. And she liked him touching her. She liked a lot of things—like how he would wait until she finished her page to say something, or gently take her hand when they’d walk through the village together, or how he loved books but would never show it, or the way he’d stare at her as if she were something so precious to him.
She let him take off her dress piece by piece. First was the sash—as he untied it, her skirt fell unceremoniously into the futon. Then he moved onto her undergarments. Kosuzu preferred to spare herself from the slow and deliberate process of undressing by degrees, but he loved being overly meticulous. Either way, she didn’t mind as long as he enjoyed it, and from the look of his face, he did so immensely.
He then unfastened the straps on her robe, and what was left of her clothing was then stripped away. There, he admired her, taking all of her in with his eyes. Kosuzu wasn’t the type to let herself be fine art, so she brought her face closer to his and kissed him, first on his neck, and then on his cheek.
Oh, the sweet joy it brought her when he looked at her stunned, thoughts probably swirling with her. She disrobed him and climbed onto his lap. They looked at each other—and there was an unspoken agreement that she would be okay with him, and he would take care of her for the rest of their lives. Or maybe she just assumed that, but she was rather good at reading his expression.
They connected. She felt his warmth through his hands. She felt him inside of her. And while she would have loved to keep herself dignified, her shortness of breath, her cries, and her stupid-looking expressions—all that made it difficult. Maybe if she weren’t sitting on his lap, directly facing him, she wouldn’t be so self-conscious, but she was emotionally naked. Still, despite her shame, she thrust against him.
Hideji ran his hands down her waist and onto her thighs, his fingers tracing invisible lines to her knees. Kosuzu knew that he only did it because it got her unbelievably turned on every time. It made her drool a little—she hid her face, looking down, wiping it quickly with the back of her hand. It made her feel more unattractive than she usually did, enough to make her feel cross—but she knew Hideji wasn’t paying attention to her drool. Just her.
Usually, this would be when she’d make some snappy, self-deprecating comment, and they’d share a laugh together, but this time, she wasn’t really in the mood. Today, she felt too good to care. She felt so good that she decided that, for once, she would shut up and enjoy herself.
So Kosuzu did. If she hadn’t already been clinging tightly onto Hideji, she would have buckled under the pleasure, but she was no dead fish, and Hideji wasn’t either. Sitting on top of him, she had the luxury of cradling his head, a rare but welcome circumstance when she was an entire head below him in height.
When he grew increasingly rougher with her—one hand firmly gripping her hip, the other on her shoulder, both pressing against her tightly—she was sure he was growing close to the end. Maybe he’ll leave a mark, she thought, and it brought her an uneasy happiness. Nobody would see it except Hideji, since it’d be hidden underneath her clothes. Still, it was lascivious, very much so. Yet she kept rocking back and forth, breathing in soft gasps as they touched each other.
But it must have been Kosuzu who came first because whatever she was thinking suddenly took backseat to pleasure. She fell on top of him, and it reminded her of the first time she had collapsed onto Hideji—except this time it wasn’t heatstroke.
He finished, shortly after, and she was glad because she could breathe.
The two cleaned up. By the time they finished, moonlight bled into the room. Kosuzu watched Hideji as he put his clothes back on and left her room. Then an ineffable feeling overcame her, and she threw her clothes on, quickly, chasing him to the door to grab his hand. He was already halfway out when she caught him, his hand still nudging the door open. Many words swirled around her head, but none of them could come out. All she could do was try to convey everything she wanted to say through her eyes—and she stared, hard, so that she could impart something—maybe not everything—but something to him.
Hideji understood. He sighed and shut the door closed.
And he, for that night and evermore, stayed with her.
Well done, Mueller. This isn't really porn, since there's nothing particularly lurid about it, and that's perfectly fine. No, in fact, it's perfectly fitting. This is a short and sweet depiction of a calm, mature relationship between adults with just the addition of a brief moment of excitement. It would take a lengthy essay to unpack all the truisms, so I'll just say job well done. Warms me cockles, it does.