by Nicolas Johnson
Do I go in?
The forest blooms before me. Its roots are deeper than the mountain is tall. Veridian mosses lay as kimonos on the trunks of thousand-year-old spruces, wrapped tightly by fir obis, and patterned with wild flowers. It is day, the trees are welcoming. Their nature is light and open. The wind sings through their leaves; a tune not unlike the lullabies my grandmother had sung to me. I figure the forest has absorbed her by now.
I don’t respond.
“Little fox, we must away.”
“Soshi, time to get up.” Her voice is punctuated by the clanking of dishes. “You’re going to be late and you can’t be late. Not today.”
I moan a reply. My sheets have become my body and pulling away from them is like peeling skin. The warmth leaves me, the sleep clinging to my eyes. With my slippers on, I waddle to the restroom.
It isn’t long before she calls out, “You still need to eat breakfast. We’re leaving in five minutes.”
There’s a long pause. I begin to exhale, but she speaks suddenly from just outside and I am startled.
“Did you hear me?” she asks.
“Yes!” I bite a towel.
She strums the shoji’s frame. “Five minutes.”
Dusk is upon us. Lord Yamata has called us in for the night. I sleep in the stables with Jusuke, a boy of twelve winters. We clean the stalls and change the soiled straw. Each horse gets two apples. Lord Yamata’s mount, Koga, gets five.
“Little fox, are you okay?” He asks as his brush catches the loose, ebon hairs of Koga. The strands fall to floor where I sweep them aside.
I don’t reply, letting my broom scratch at the compacted dirt.
My silence goads him to say, “It had to be done.”
Grandma had been with me through the nine summers of my life. She had been with Jusuke for longer. That she would become a yurei, enslaved to the tengu seemed not to matter to him. All everyone cared about was surviving what hasn’t yet occurred.
It had happened so fast. The red star appeared one night a week ago and the alarms were raised. Lord Yamata warned us death was coming.
“We will ask the tengu to beat its wings and send the red star away, but it will require a sacrifice and a demon only bargains in blood.”
Although Lord Yamata’s mother was the oldest person, they chose my grandma for her age.
I reach the stable doors and sweep out the mess. Even in the setting sun, the moon shines on the mountain peak. At its base, the light pales against the black sea of trees.
Aokigahara, I hate you.
As the bus rumbles through Sajikiyama, the fields give way to trees and Mt. Fuji becomes invisible. Our class is the smallest on the tour, distinguishable by our dull grey uniforms. The other schools have rich blues and handsome blacks, with embroidered logos and glinting nametags. Most of the third-year junior high students from my school couldn’t afford the trip. Mom had saved for months to send me.
Our chaperone, Miss Namora, is a middle-aged, dumpy woman with a haircut a few decades out of style, dyed orange and tied with a green ribbon. The kids from the other schools sneak pictures of her whom they call the pumpkin woman. I plug in my earphones and let Namie’s voice melt me.
My blazer itches from too much starch. Mom did the laundry this morning and not last night.
“Sorry, I had overtime,” she lied to me, passing along the jacket like a stone.
I had seen her in the parking lot last night, dropped off by a man I didn’t know. When they embraced in parting, I went to dad’s butsudan and lit the incense, knowing she’d have to snuff it out when she got upstairs.
I can’t sleep. Jusuke is snoring and the night twitches with each cricket chirp. The horses are dreaming, lightly braying. From where I lay, the open sky is a field of stars at every season. Some patches are empty, others full. Still, more are budding than are bloomed.
Outside, the wind is the mountain’s icy breath, exhaled through the trees. For a moment, I feel it trace my body, let it run across my cheeks and eyes. There’s a smell to it like honeysuckle, soft and sweet. Then I remind myself of where it came. Aokigahara is beckoning me. Grandma’s voice is somewhere in this noxious aroma and I haven’t the ears to hear her. For a moment, I wish I were a fox.
I need to get closer.
A charm hangs about my neck, a wooden thing etched with words I cannot read. Lord Yamata had fashioned them for all of us to wear after the red star appeared. Jusuke said they’d stop us from hearing the spirits.
Grandma’s a spirit now. I take off my charm and toss it aside. Before I know it, I’m among the trees. I sing out her lullaby and something replies.
The air here is thinner than my lungs have ever known and it takes deep breathing to compensate. Everyone is expected to hike the trail to the ice cave, but I can hardly make it past the entrance sign to Aokigahara. I pause to recapture air. Looking up, I read:
Think once more about the life you were given, your parents, your brothers and sisters, your children. Don’t suffer alone. Please contact somebody.
It’s odd to see it posted so close to the trail. Those who come here to die venture off the road. I wonder if they have signs there too.
I realize I’ve lingered and no other greys are around. I spot something orange in the distance and follow it.
The deeper I go, the more the trees begin to swaddle me. When I no longer hear the crickets, I stop calling her name. This is a place of silence, where yurei sleep. If I disturb the wrong one, I fear I will die. Since entering, I haven’t heard it sing back to me again.
Grandma, I’m sorry.
A glint of light catches my eye. I look toward it. In the bushes hangs a golden mon. The coin dangles from a ribbon of silk. I pull it down. By moonlight, the fabric appears red with black lettering on both sides. It is looped through the coin but has no ends.
By instinct, I put it around my neck. The metal lies flat against my heart. A howl escapes my mouth faster than I can cover it with my hands. I feel the forest sigh to life. A thousand eyes peer at me in the dark, their shadowed pupils aglow with white irises.
The orange object appears farther every time I look up. I run to catch up, but it does more harm than good. I’m always out of breath. I feel light-headed. It’s been awhile since I’ve seen someone else. The trail ended a long way back. I could’ve sworn a few students had come this way with me. Looking around, the trees look untamed.
“Hello!” I yell out. No one replies. I check my phone. It’s 12:23pm. “How did–,” I begin to say, thinking it couldn’t have been almost three hours since arriving.
The density of the trees keeps out most of the daylight. As the shadows play across my face, I suppress the instinct to run. I find an open patch and begin to call Miss Namora. It never rings and even the automated woman’s voice fails to tell me so. I look at my screen and it fizzles before turning black.
My stomach rises, pushing my heart into my throat. My ears are thudding with each pulse. A breeze catches my nape and I shiver.
“Stay calm, Soshi,” I tell myself.
Spirits, spare me!
I fear their approach. They move without sound. What were a thousand eyes morphs into a solitary pair the moment the moonlight hits them. They are the eyes of my grandmother. The shape of her body takes form in the dark, but she is not touching the ground. I fall backward as she nears. She hovers over me, her face inches from mine.
Our eyes lock and she opens her mouth. Her voice comes from a farther place, “Kosei, my love. Go home, child.”
I shake my head. She does not smile.
“Then you will be lost, little fox.”
I shake my head again.
She places her hand near the golden mon. It is so cold, it burns. I scream out in pain. A rumble sounds through the forest.
Grandma looks scared. “He is coming. You must run, Kosei.”
I am rooted to the spot.
“Run!” Her visage fades into the shadows, the eyes extinguish.
The forest has beaten me physically, but in my mind I keep my senses. If I can find the sun, I can follow it out of here. If I can see the mountain, I can turn my back to it and head out the forest. Looking up though, I can see neither. The canopy is thick and only trace amounts of sky filter in, the rays like laser pointers on the ground.
I am thinking of mother. Why did she send her only son to the suicide forest? Why scrape and pinch for such a trip? All I wanted was a pair of Onitsukas, but she said this would be better. I can’t help but laugh. I laugh louder, letting it carry through the leaves.
When I’m done laughing, I want to cry.
“Soshi, be a man,” I lecture myself.
“Yeah, be a man,” a voice says.
Startled, I look around and find no one there. Then a laugh echoes in my ear.
I am unable to do as grandma commanded. My body is as stone. I close my eyes. My hearing pitches and I make out footfalls. They are coming closer and my heart is galloping.
“Kosei!” The voice is Jusuke’s. I open my eyes and find the older boy in front of me with a lantern. The warm glow of it is in contrast to the forest. “Little fox, I’ve found you!”
I eagerly nod, on the verge of tears.
“But why are you here?”
Because she called to me.
“Nevermind, I’m just glad you’re okay. We need to head back now. My flame is almost spent. Come.” He grabs my hand and pulls me to my feet.
As we walk, he notices the necklace I now wear.
“Did you steal that from Lord Yamata?”
I shake my head.
“Then where did you get it?”
I point back to where we came. The color drains from Jusuke’s face.
“You stole from the forest…”
When his scream pierces the night, the lantern falls. My eyes follow it. As the flames die, I see the giant paws of a dog coated in blood.
A reply is lacking. Feeling bold, I grab a nearby stick.
The already silent forest grows quieter. So much so I can hear my heart beating like a clock in an empty room.
There’s a rustling noise behind me. I turn and see the shrubbery shaking. I edge closer, the stick in the lead. When I’m near enough, I jab at it. The bush stops moving. Saliva catches in my throat and I gulp it down. I stab again. A face appears. It’s of a little boy and his mouth is sewn shut. The color of his eyes are inverted, black where they should be white and white where they should be black.
The boy tilts his head slightly.
“Are you okay?” I start to back away, the stick half at the ready.
The boy shakes his head.
“Do you know the way out of here?” My voices breaks on the last word.
He nods yes.
“Can you show me?”
He tilts back to vertical, his eyes locked on mine. Somewhere in my mind I hear it:
Nicolas Johnson is an avid tennis player, a heavy-handed cook, and a rpg addict. He was born and raised in Long Beach, a melting pot of culture and diversity, and is currently a MFA student at CSULB, where he also received his B.A. in English. He is working on a fantasy series and hopes to complete the first book by Spring 2017. This is his first publication.