Notes and Disclaimers: Maria-sama ga Miteru and Lillian Academy are the creation of Konno Oyuki, and the property of Konno Oyuki, Shueisha and Geneon Entertainment. The characters and situations in this story are the creation, but probably not the property of, of E. Friedman
This fifth chapter of the Forest of Thorns historical look at the soeur system at Lillian, took a lot more research than you think. :-) I hope you appreciate it.
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Songs of Victory, Songs of War (Forest of Thorns - V)
The leaves have once again turned golden here at Lillian Academy. Students gather on pathways to sweep and clean, their voices ringing out in the clear autumn air. In this time of want, extra attention is being paid to the little details. You can find Lillian students carefully removing freshly-fallen gingkoes from the ground, students with dusters cleaning the shelves in the library and, if you listen carefully, you can hear the sound of the piano in the music room as each key is painstakingly polished.
Outside these pristine walls there lies a world of privation and pain, but within there exists a sweet serenity to which each pupil clings, like the treasure it is. What is it about Lillian Academy that preserves it so, an oasis of sweet water and cool shade amidst a desert of loss and ruin?
Surely for most of the students, the solid core of their fondness would reside in the soeur relationship that they have formed. Moving beyond groups of classmates or clubs, this single Lillian tradition has created a lengthy history of beloved grande and petite sisters, stretching through the long years since this institution's birth.
Each year a second-year student might choose that special first year that speaks to her heart to become more than a friend. Each year these sisterhoods create the next link in this unbroken chain that will outlast any one of us.
The path is shattered; the bricks are uneven, some are missing. Not fifty meters from the school's main gates is a hole in the road where artillery struck within recent memory. Miraculously, within Lillian's precincts, not a single sign of strife exists. It is true that the students' uniforms are a little more worn than was acceptable a short time ago, and the girls' eyes appear large in thin faces, but still, laughter,song and music fill the air at Lillian.
And what about those few, the lost, adrift without soeur? One might picture them, alone by day, ostracized, withdrawn, but that is not true. Even those who remain unchosen, or who refuse to choose, have bonds of friendship, companionship... and even love. Who would be able to tell, among the multitudes, which of those that held hands were sisters to one another, and which of those were more, much more, than that.
We were among those, you and I.
The street is full of American trucks and American soldiers. The stall owners call out in pidgin English, hoping to bring business from the only people in town with money. Our soldiers have not returned - no one knows whether they are dead, or simply too frightened to come back home in defeat.
Smoke rose for so long over the old munitions plant that it seems strange to see a clear sky, even now. Lillian students greet each other traditionally, nodding politely, pretending that the air does not smell of gasoline and sweat and fear. The preferred career choice is nurse - we all wish to heal this place and the people in it, even as we pull away in repulsion. We are an invaded country, and even Lillian and Maria-sama cannot protect us.
The soldiers on the street try to be polite. They hear our "gokigenyou" and mimic it, bowing. But their smiles are not always nice, and their laughter is grating, as the angels of Lillian move away from them into the school. Those who can understand English well offer translations at times and other times, refuse to speak.
You spoke their language well. I remember the time you answered the soldiers with a word so rude that they stood shocked, then laughed with amazement and bowed to you, this time without irony. You would not tell me what the word meant.
Day after day the procession into Lillian Academy draws them, and day after day, the students put the world behind them when they pass by Maria-sama and pray.
Winter comes upon Lillian softly. The air remains warm and, with the golden leaves now gone, the pine trees are thrown into stark relief. If snow comes, everything is cast into chiaroscuro contrast. Only we, the students who move sedately through this place, ever change and we too are muted. Even those who are not soeurs hold hands and travel in groups. Voices are kept down, no songs are sung. Winter, however warm, will be hard this year, even in the sacred precincts of Lillian.
The soldiers come every day, watching us on parade as our brothers do them when they change their guard. They salute us, and we bow, but we avoid their hungry eyes. I refused to bow, nor would I look in their direction, but your eyes burned and you spoke to them in their language, saying shocking and un-Lillian-like things. I knew your speech was coarse, even when I did not know what you were saying. I was torn, then, with admiration for your ability to hurt them, and jealous that you would speak with them at all.
Deprivation strikes at the heart of Lillian Academy. Students drop out, sickness takes them, families have no money, or must move when their homes are taken over or destroyed. There are fewer girls now, and they clutch each other; soeur to soeur, hand to hand, heart to heart, desperate to avoid separation.
I clung to you that night, in the cold dark, when your breath was the only warmth I could feel. Your kisses were warmer than anything I could have imagined - warmer by far than the thin soup we ate for lunch, warmer than the meager blanket I wrapped around my two brothers as we huddled against the freezing air.
Your words were like a spring paradise, flowers and sunshine in that bitter time. Our oaths filled me, giving me the energy I missed from good food. Every moment with you was a meal fit for an Empress.
Spring came to Lillian grudgingly. The cherry blossoms seemed reluctant to bloom. The classrooms were empty, and the halls nearly silent. I went out to see you, to take in one more precious moment with you that would make me forget the unease of life.
His arms slipped around you so easily, as easily as mine had only the night before. But his stubbled chin and pale blue eyes mocked you, even as he stole the kiss meant for me.
You left me alone at Lillian. Without soeur, without friend. Without mercy, you left me for that American soldier and never even came back to say goodbye.
Summer was hot.
The ginkgoes had turned gold, filling Lillian with a radiance I hadn't seen in years. Change was coming - everyone could feel it. Students were returning, renewed hope filled the air. The soldiers were still there, but there was talk of them leaving soon. We bowed to them, our gestures full of irony, as we entered the school.
As I approached the gate, my onee-sama called out my name. I waved, and sped up my steps to join her quickly. Without a word, she took my hand in hers as we walked past the soldiers.
The last day, your soldier was there. I did not know enough of his language to ask him about you - nor would I have done so, if I could.
We had loved each other, we had cared about each other, but you left without a word.
And my onee-sama loved me enough to have picked me up, wretch that I was, that I am, heartbroken and alone, and to have taken my hand and walked with me right in front of that soldier of yours, telling me that I was strong and that I would become stronger.
Where you spoke so many beautiful lies, she says nothing, but simply takes my hand and we walk together. She wants to be an artist. Not a nurse, not a wife. She tells me that pain is the source of all art. As I prepare myself to finish this, and lay down my pen, I can't help but think that she was absolutely right about that. And so, as autumn comes once more to Lillian, and once more, under showers of golden sun, and golden leaves and golden hope, we pass in front of Maria-sama, I'm inclined to believe she was right about me, as well.
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