After leaving the old lady’s house, Kou and I traveled to various places while avoiding the sandstorms. With the [Tower of Hope] in front of us, we followed a route where we circumvented its surroundings.
Seven days after leaving the town of rubble, we arrived at a certain ranch.
Inside a spacious enclosure lied about fifteen goats. A bundle of dried grasses piled up along the barn’s wall, and next to it was a small house.
Coming out of the house was a girl, about the same age as I.
“Good afternoon, Kou-san.”
The girl named Yako stared at me curiously.
"Do you remember Jin-san? He used to come here. This is his son."
"Oh, is that so? Nice to meet you."
Yako, who sweetly smiled at me, had a pretty cute face. She was a bit taller than I.
I mumbled and returned her greeting.
Kou made a gesture to cover his mouth. Realizing he was suppressing laughter, I felt a little unamused.
We promptly brought our goods to Yako's house and stocked up on goat cheese in its place.
I had eaten that cheese before. It was a popular good, even in the town of rubble.
"My little sister likes this."
"Huh, is that so? I'm so glad!"
As Yako said that with a bright smile, I felt somewhat flurried.
Thinking about it, this was the first time I could lightheartedly speak to somebody my age.
Yako was apparently sixteen, one year older than me. Her entire family died from hilko infection, and for the past four years she's been alone.
However, nearby relatives came to help, and now she continues to work as a shepherd.
Today a cousin of Yako's mother came, and the four of us ate lunch together.
"Jin-san truly was childish though. Every time he came around he'd always say how much he 'wanted to go home……'"
The lady heartily said so.
This time was the same. Every place we went, Kou would introduce me as [Jin's son], and everybody would give the same old story.
I was troubled on how to respond, so I simply continued to eat silently. I feel I've gotten better at feigning serenity. Stew made with goat's milk is delicious.
Abruptly, my eyes met with Yako's, who sat next to me.
"Hey Nagi-kun, have you ever milked a goat?"
"Huh… I haven't."
"Then do you want to try it later? You came all this way after all."
Surprised by her calling me 'Nagi-kun' and the mentioning of milk, I replied without thinking.
When we finished lunch, Yako took me to the barn enclosure.
Yako caught a certain goat and fastened it to the fence.
"Watch this. This is what you do."
As one would expect, she was very used to it. Squeezed milk vigorously fell into the bucket.
It looked pretty simple, but for some reason when I switched with her barely any milk came out. Although they belonged to a goat, I felt somewhat awkward touching breasts.
"This is difficult……"
"Aha, it's simple once you get the hang of it."
Once Yako switched with me again, almost as if it were magic, tons of milk came out. It was the work of an artisan.
After listening to her secrets and trying again, I somehow managed to get a bit of milk out in trickles. Finally, Yako finished squeezing the goat, we transferred the milk in the bucket to a special container.
"If you drink it like this it's sort of fishy. It's good when you process it into food or cheese though. Recently the good pastures have been declining, so the quality of our milk has fallen a bit."
Just as Yako stated, the dried grass was a light brown color, and I couldn't say it looked tasty even as flattery.
While watching the goats eat from outside the enclosure, we chatted.
"That's amazing, so you can do that all by yourself."
"That's not true. I still have a ways to go. Even when it comes to milking the goats, my uncle and parents were much better than me."
"Huh…… Is that so?"
When the topic of family popped up, I was a little surprised, but Yako continued in a casual tone.
"We've kept goats since my great-grandpa's generation. People slowly migrated to the moon, and this area changed into a desert…… But my grandpa always said that when the rainy season comes, the grasses that feed the goats grow, and we can't abandon the goats 'cause of our own circumstances."
"I thought I was causing trouble for all the old ladies who came by to help, but when I told them that, I got scolded. They told me to rely on them more."
"Since there aren't many of us left, it's really important to connect with others. The caravan is a big help too. If the cheese I make is able to reach someone and make them happy, I think I can try a bit harder."
Yako looked into me.
"Hey, are you doing the same work as your father?"
Asked that, I was startled. For some reason or another, I answered without looking her in the eyes.
"……That's not really the case here. I just happened to tag along this time."
"I think that succeeding someone else's work is something wonderful. Wouldn't your father enjoy that too?"
Surprised, I looked to the side. Yako, who was taller than I, looked down at me. I sullenly turned my face away.
"That doesn't matter. I'm me."
What came out of my mouth was a voice filled with displeasure.
After a moment, Yako spoke, as if she were murmuring.
"……Sorry, I said some strange things."
"Oh, no…… Sorry."
Baaa. The goats bleated, as if to chide me and my quick temper.
The inside of my chest felt gloomy.
For a while, the two of us remained silent. As I thought, Yako was the one to break the silence.
"You know, I thought I'd give you this."
She offered me a small poly bag that could fit in my hand. Inside it were a bunch of sesame seed-like things.
"Apparently they're flower seeds. I got them from someone who traveled all the way from the east."
"The east? Was it someone from [Volcano Country]?"
"Yeah. This happened before it was called that though⸺before the Great Rift Valley was formed."
Since the eastern mountains' great eruption four years ago, the country among the mountains became known as [Volcano Country].
Due to the eruptions' influence, the ground crumbled greatly and the earth was divided into east and west sections, making it difficult for each side to keep in touch with the other.
To summarize, that traveler came here before that eruption.
"These don't grow well in this area's earth. So I forgot about these seeds for a while."
"Why are you giving these to me?"
"Well, where should I start……?"
At that moment, Kou came from the entrance.
"We should leave pretty soon. I want to be at the next location before the sun goes down."
When I looked to Yako, she gave me a light smile.
"In that case, come back here sometime. I'll tell you all about them then."
While I was faltering, somehow the seeds were pushed onto me.
"Well then, see you around, Nagi-kun."
Lured in by Yako, who waved at me, I replied without thinking. When she calls me 'Nagi-kun', I feel uneasy.
For some reason, Kou was grinning.
"Sorry, did I disturb you two?"
"No-not really…… You didn't disturb anything."
In order to hide my obviously red face I hurried to the station wagon.