Monday, November 25, 2013

White noise

I was on the plain. The land was mostly flat, with some bumps and rises between the few, bare juniper trees and pimply groupings of rocks. My camp was up against a larger boulder, a larger piece of dense, red lava rock. I used my pick to carve a depression in the rock against the ground in which I built a fire so the heat would reflect better.

The night was dark because the moon was gone. I ate half a can of sticky kidney beans and half a can of syrupy peaches and stretched out close enough to the fire to sleep on top of my sleeping bag and not freeze. When the wind kicked up later and the fire became a loose pile of embers then I'd slide under the the bag and huddle closer. But, for now, the breeze on the back of my neck was welcome with the flame pushing out at me.

When everything went away I missed the big things first. Hot showers, or hot water I didn't have to boil, came first. The world was dirty and I was too. Dirt stuck to me like my ragged clothes stuck to me like everything stuck to me and it was miserable. I missed my cell phone. The world was still at my fingertips, I suppose, but it was a whole lot smaller and more visceral and I depended utterly on it. Email and social media and inane-but-beautiful videos were reduced to figments of memory, and when I wanted to remember individual pieces they all ended up blurring together into an amorphous unit of what life constantly was.

Mostly I missed white noise. The sound of a dryer loosely spinning hot socks on a rainy day. The low hum of my refrigerator in the night as it kept perishable food cold enough to enjoy days or weeks later. The gentle in-out of someone you trust enough to let them sleep at your side. Now everything was soundless like always except for the wood popping and hissing in the fire. And I liked it that was because it meant I was alone and safe and nothing would be complicated or dangerous.

I slept on the ground and dreamed of a big bed, and breakfast cereal, and the morning news with inane anchors desperate for ratings to justify their opulent contracts and fancy suits, and washing machines and dryers, and the sound a can of shaving cream makes when you shake it up and press the button on the top and white lather explodes into your hand, and the whirr of an idling engine as you wait for something, anything, and you can't stand the sound so you switch on the radio and all you can find is commercial after commercial but you listen anyway because it's better than endless white noise.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Sticks and stones

"This is where my brothers and sisters rest," the woman said. I strained to hear her whisper of a voice above the steady wind. "And my parents, and theirs before, going back five generations, as long as we've lived on the feet of Fuji."

In my travel I've learned that cemeteries match their adjacent cities. Back home, I recall buildings and stones on wide lawns stretching out on the horizon in a blur of rock and fresh sod. Families lived apart, died apart, and were buried in plots connected only by endless highways and fading memory.

"What about your children?" I asked.

She didn't answer as she walked ahead of me. In Japan I found density and emptiness. This cemetery on the outskirts of Sengokuhara was more a cluster of miniature skyscrapers on a hillside surrounded by angled trees and choking vines. Each plot was a mix of black and grey stone of varying heights, and each ran up so close to adjacent ones that the dead couldn't help be neighborly and rub elbows. The yard was connected to the town by a leaf-covered path through the forest and next to a Buddhist temple and miles of pristine countryside.

I hurried after her. We stopped at a ground well water pump where she filled a mossy wooden bucket with frigid water. Then we walked down the cemetery's narrow lanes. When we reached the end of a row and hit the trees, we'd turn around and walk back and start over in the next one.

"Honda. Fukui. Akiyama," she said. "There are only so many families here. Some came once upon a time and lived until they were all gone. Others would come after and care for the stones. And then suddenly it was only me."

"You take care of this all by yourself?" I asked.

We stopped at a set of stones in almost the exact middle of the cemetery. In the center of the cluster was a massive rectangular stone that rose above my head and was carved with characters I vaguely recognized. Secured to this larger stone were five brown wooden stakes bundled together with string and marked with red, painted characters. Running out in front of it were two lines of smaller, egg-shaped stones that only came up to my knees. Each was marked with a single character painted white into the carved rock face. The ground beneath them was a mix of black and white pebbles of every imaginable shape. A white wooden fence bordered the entire plot.

She began by washing the headstone using the water in the bucket and a small ceramic cup that was placed at the headstone's base. The water looked to vanish immediately as it hit the stone, turning to minuscule droplets that reflected the sunlight, making them shine like stars. She did this for each stone, moving from large to small. Once each was wet, she took a rag out of her jacket pocket and wiped the stones, moving from the largest to the smallest but not ignoring any of them. She then removed a bundle of incense from another pocket.

"Got a light?" she asked.

I pulled out my copper zippo and flicked it to life. She briefly held the incense sticks in the flame until they caught and began emitting a pungent rose smoke that stuck in the back of my throat.

"My honored parents and grandparents always go first," she said as she traced a pattern with the smoking sticks before setting them into a holder at the headstone's base. "And the rest of my family. Then I can move on to others."

I stood on my toes, looked over her head, and swiveled around. There must have been over 50 plots in the entire cemetery, some more ornate than others, featuring statues of Buddhas taller than me that towered over the diminutive woman.

"All of them?" I asked.

"Each and every one." She smiled. "Their memories and spirits deserve nothing less."

Friday, November 15, 2013


I buried Jane in the later winter when the ground was still firm and radiated trapped cold like an ice chest. My hands ached as I chipped away at the ground with the shovel and scattered clay-rich earth in small pellets. Bennett offered to help but I refused, and he gave me a skeptical look that made me want to turn the shovel end-over-end and bash in his face until it was his blood that stained the ground and his life that snuck away into the hard-packed earth. But that wouldn't bring back my wife so I kept digging and my hands kept hurting.

She was covered in the near-transparent brown shawl that she wore under her two sweaters and black bomber jacket. It was a gift from her mother almost two decades ago and provided little extra protection against the elements, but she looped it around her neck every day all the same. She said it reminded her of how life once was, that different time I was convinced was utterly gone but she insisted would return if we held onto hope and held onto each other through the dusty days and bitter nights.

"You're going to bust your stitches if you don't let me help you," Bennett said.

"Get fucked," I said.

Bennett snorted and dropped his shovel at my feet. "Be that way," he said. "I'll take care of the basics while you deal with this. Don't come crying to me when you rip yourself apart and are leaking like a stuck pig and I have to put you back together all over again."

Our camp was pressed up against a copse of gnarled, bare juniper tree, shielded from the wind that usually came from the west. At its center was a circle of small, chipped granite stones that surrounded steaming coals and red embers from our dying fire. Bennett sprinkled fresh straw on the coals and blew air until it caught, then added sticks and small logs until the fire was going again full-bore.

He walked to the creek that bordered the camp and was little more than a few trenches of shallow water running down the old wash. He filled a metal cylinder that used to be a short garbage pail with water and returned it to the fire, setting it within the circle's perimeter to boil. He then walked back over to me.

"It'll be ready in about ten minutes," he said.

I didn't respond and kept digging. After every few cuts of the earth I glanced over at Jane's body. The shawl was thin enough that I saw everything except her eyes, which I knew were closed but were still somewhat obscured by the cloth. She was pale and drained, strength spent fighting an infection that swept quickly and that we were without the strength to cure. So goes existence outside of life and time.

I swung my hands up and struck the ground once more and felt a splitting pain in my side, like I was about to open up and dump everything left inside of me into the hole I'd been digging. I doubled over, one hand still on the shovel, the other clutching dirt.

"Jesus Christ take it easy," Bennett said. He threaded his arms under my armpits and lifted me up. I dropped the shovel and let him walk me back to camp. He pushed me down onto the ground facing the fire. "Old fucking fool." He spat, fished a bent cigarette out of his pocket, and lit it with his silver zippo lighter that reflected the fire and made it flash in my eyes. "I'm going to finish this and you're going to sit right there. Then we'll have a look at your stupid stitches."

Each time Bennett struck the ground with the shovel he made a whooping, grunting sound which reminded me of long rally in a tennis match, only with one participant missing. I didn't watch him finish digging the hole, and instead focused on the fire, holding my hands out in front of me and waiting for the inevitable pops and sizzles as the wood caught, cracked, and oozed beads of sap. My side burned and throbbed, and I reached for the bottle of Jim we scrounged at the old grocery down the road. We drank half of it the night before, and the remnants sloshed around as I chugged several generous gulps.

"It's finished," Bennett called over to me. I pulled the bottle back from my lips and bourbon dribbled down my chin and onto my shirt. I struggled to rise but moving made me feel like I'd split in two. By the fire, the water in the metal cylinder began to boil and shoot up steam. "Don't get up you idiot. I'll come fetch you."

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

The laughing men

I followed the woman until the road beneath our feet split into grooves wide enough to have your feet slip into them and touch the sandy dirt between the chunks, and then farther still until the cracked pavement gave way to a path of small pebbles, each roughly the same size, each polished and shining like a star. Clouds held back the moon, and the only light came from a wind-up electric lantern the woman wore about her neck that swung like a pendulum as she moved.

We approached a series of gates that marked the entryway to Sengokuhara Shrine on the town's western border. Painted various strengths of riotous candy apple red that refused to dull through weather and time, the wooden gates reflected the lantern's light like mirrors. Each time we went under a new one, I'd look up and and feel like an ant sneaking under a loose staple. They were remnants from a different time, placed by the spirits of our ancestors to remind us not to forget that faith held the world together long before us and would continue to do so long after our deaths.

The woman stopped at a small fountain at the edge of the shrine where she used a metal ladle to wash her hands and then mine with near-freezing water. Once clean, I tucked my hands into my coat pockets and followed onward along a dirt path lined with mossy rock and covered by a slick carpet of leaves of every conceivable color. Despite her age, she moved at speed because, even with only a weak yellow light as her guide, the trail's bends, divots, and steps were burned into her mind through years of repeated travel. I tried to follow her close, but fell behind as she sprung along the path and dipped beneath a distant rise. Blinking, I found myself in darkness and came to a standstill.

I took out my flashlight and switched it on only to lurch backward as the beam fell on a laughing man down on the ground. I spun around and there was another, eyes closed in hilarity, mouth and teeth wide in an irrevocable grin. They were statutes of course, buddhas paid for by the town's erstwhile residents over as many generations as the town used to exist. That didn't alleviate my surprise or the feeling that the men were somehow amused with my situation. I arced the flashlight across the hill that rose out of the path and saw dozens more ascending to the tree line hundreds of feet away, all waiting for me to notice them so they could laugh at a lost little man far from home, all wearing the faces of dead men and women who had not lived to see how the world changed.

Hearing movement up the train, I turned the flashlight and found the woman standing next to me. The lantern in her hands made a whirring sound as she wound it up until it flickered back to life.

"You must come now," she said. "The cemetery is this way."

Friday, November 1, 2013

Entering the black sea of trees

I struggled over porous volcanic boulders as I lit out from the trail. Sharp edges and shooting sticks tore my clothes, and the wet rocks rubbed my hands raw as I tried to steady myself over the mossy patches that hid in shadows and found their way under my boots. My hands stung as I wiped them on my shirt, and I noticed the dots of bloody mud they left behind.

It was the early afternoon when I entered the forest. Under the dense canopy with the shadows it cast down, it might as well have been twilight. The seemingly permanent cloud cover made it even darker, and I found myself squinting and trying to make out the way forward. The trees also failed to hold back the drizzle that continued to fall. Instead of hitting me directly, water wormed its way along, sliding down wood and vine, clinging to everything it touched until it hit the forest floor, transforming the patches between volcanic rock into muddy bogs that made a sucking noise under my boots as I stepped in them.

The tent was hidden under a stately tree surrounded by a copse of spindly trunks, pitched at the bottom where roots bigger than I am pushed out of the ground and formed a small hollow. Despite its bright tangerine color with blue accents, I would have missed it if I walked ten feet farther left or right. I lowered myself down a slick slide of wood and vine until I faced the tent and the higher ground was level with my head.

Debris littered the crater under the roots. A tattered, overturned backpack covered in dirt and half-eaten by mold sat before the tent; its pulped contents of papers and clothing emptied on the ground were still visible, but long-decayed from their original shapes. I pushed at a brown mass next to the bag with my foot, which caused it to spread open and revealed that it used to be a leather wallet.

I picked up the wallet and cringed because it was sticky between my fingers. Inside was more of the same rotted paper, old green and blue Yen notes mashed together so they would never matter again. Only one object within was intact, a white plastic Mizuho Bank card from 1999 in the name of Shouta Doi. I pocketed the card and dropped the wallet.

"Shouta?" I asked of the tent. "Anyone home?

The tent's front flaps were only partially zipped. I crept closer and took out my flashlight, pushing it awkwardly ahead like a weapon. I grabbed the zipper and held my breath as I slowly threaded it down. Condensation gathered on the nylon fabric jumped to my hand and wet my sweater sleeve as they passed. I parted the flap and stuck my flashlight and head inside.

A sunflower-colored sleeping bag dominated the tent's interior. Around it was a collection of half-full water bottles, foil food wrappers that reflected my flashlight's beam back at me, opaque and empty medicine bottles, and more musty clothing stained brown with dirt and green with mold. A folded piece of paper was placed on the middle of the sleeping bag. I snapped it up and shook it open; inside were a few scrawled characters written lightly in ink.

The note read: "Times are done. This is the only option. If you have found me, I am sorry."