Thursday, December 12, 2013

License plates

Jamison was the last person to debate God's existence with me and now he's dead. Each night before he slept he would kneel and mumble a series of words I didn't understand while fingering a string of beads. He would talk while we watched the fire and ate whatever we could find.

He said God was watching and this was punishment for lifetimes of indiscretions. I laughed at his big statements and threw stones at the fire. He chastised me in a gentle way like a father would scold a child, looking at me down his face and that massive beard like a white, puffy cloud.

Nietzsche said God is dead. So is Jamison. This isn't a question I care to debate. God being dead or alive is irrelevant. I'm still here regardless of empty words screamed at the sky in the hopes of absolution.

The sun is pale yellow and cold as it rises. Our relationship is hopeless in winter. I can't stare at it for more than a few seconds and it doesn't heat the world around me more than an inconsequential amount. Even when I do stare, its outline lingers behind my eyelids.

The fire always goes out in the night. I must rise and add sticks to ensure I don't freeze. No matter what I do, no matter how much fuel I add, I still rise with ice crystals gluing my sleeping bag to the ground. Dew settles in while I sleep despite my best efforts.

I rise and roll my bag and continue along broken highways rich with history in the form of abandoned cars. I find one or two every couple of miles, like they were part of a long, steady caravan that petered out. Each is rusted and long since picked over by scavengers looking for metal or drops of gasoline or padding.

The best cars still have their license plates. I collect unique ones that I find by punching holes in either end of the plate with my knife and stringing them together before putting them in my pack. I only keep the truly exceptional ones.

I have one from Oregon with a tree on it, because that's where I lived before most of everyone died and I hit the road. Then there's the California plate that's deep blue with sunflower yellow letters. It's seemingly unremarkable, but reminds me of my dad's old Honda Civic. He lived in Redding and I visited him in the summer. He left that car parked on his lawn until it killed all the grass under it.

The last plate is one given to me by Jamison before he died. It's from Hawaii, which surprised both of us because it's so far away. He said he found it on the remains of a fancy car, a Mercedes carefully brought over the Pacific but ultimately ruined like all the rest. It was nice of him to think of me, despite all of our differences.

I like the Hawaii plate specifically because of its rainbow. I imagine it still on the car, a little slice of joy amid a sea of ruin and rust. When I think of it like that, no matter where I am it makes me smile.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

The guestbook

Hazuki showed me to my room after we finished dinner. We walked along the onsen's carpeted hallways, past closed screen doors, and up a flight of stairs that led to a wooden door.

"This used to be our suite," Hazuki said. "I hope you like it. Sorry we don't have electricity."

The floor was a polished bamboo and so were the walls. My shoes squeaked as I walked. She pointed to a small futon mattress folded against the far wall. I nodded, set my pack down, and bowed my head to her. She waved off my thanks with a wry smile and the wave of a hand.

"I rise with the sun. I'd be happy to offer you breakfast if you're awake," she said.

"Food, shelter, all these favors," I said.

"I'm just happy to have someone back under my roof." She moved to the door. "Sleep well."

Unfurling the mattress, I sat with my sleeping bag wrapped around my shoulders. The room was dark so I lit one of my candles and used melting wax to secure it to the floor. My breath was a steaming fog that caused the tiny flame to momentarily flicker and bend before it righted and continued to project its weak aura across the bamboo floor.

I was tired but restless and didn't want to sleep, so I got off the mattress, picked up the candle, and walked circles around the room. The room was spare, with no wall decorations save a single framed picture of Mt. Fuji in winter covered with layers of snow. Under the picture was a small desk with no chair. I opened each drawer but found nothing.

I sighed. There was no guestbook, no clues as to what life used to be like here. I wanted a story of a married couple here on honeymoon preparing to do a midnight trek to the top of Mt. Fuji so they could watch the sunrise in awe. Or perhaps a group of three or four trekkers working their way through Japan, top-to-bottom, splurging for a couple of nights to soak in the sulfur pools and drink too much. These were the stories I missed, unremarkable on their face but exceptional in the light of how they didn't happen anymore.

Closing the last drawer, I retreated back to the mattress and blew out the candle. I closed my eyes, but sleep didn't come.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013


We sat cross-legged at a low table and ate tinned pork and beans by candlelight. The walls of the onsen creaked like a massive bellows and the building sighed with each push of wind. The old woman clucked critically.

"Repairs are impossible in the winter. It's too cold and I'm too tired," she said. "Did you enjoy your bath?"

"River runoff got cold early this year." I flashed a thumbs-up. "First good soak in as long as I can remember."

"That pleases me greatly."

The building was one of three that sat in a valley between two of the smaller hills adjacent to Mt. Fuji in Sengokuhara. They were at the edge of town, after the graveyards, abandoned busses and cars, and the slim commercial district with its broken windows and walls covered with moss.

Hazuki was the woman's name. She inherited the onsen from her parents, who inherited her from their parents, and so on for enough generations until memory and time blurred together. Her family had always owned this onsen, she insisted.

"It's nice to see some things haven't changed all that much," I said. "I remember places like this. My father took me to one before he died. Down in Kyoto I think. The waters tasted savory."

"I wished for my son to take over for me." She left the thought unfinished because the rest was obvious. He was one of the unlucky ones, one of many.

"What was his name?" I asked.


"Tell me about him?"

Hazuki smiled, set her can down on the table, and then placed the spoon next to it. She rubbed her hands together.

"He was a sweet boy and so gentle. I raised him here as my parents raised me. He left here for Tokyo some years before this all began. He wanted to study Rosanjin and become a chef."

"Rosanjin?" I laughed. "What would the old master think of us now? Here we are, huddled here in the dark eating from tin cans."

"There's beauty here that doesn't require fine plates and exquisite preparation." Hazuki picked up the spoon and pointed it at me. "We share food together in spite of everything that has happened. And we stay true to ourselves and our old ways. That's beauty enough for me."

I shoveled a spoonful of beans into my mouth. It was cold and tasted like metal. Everything tasted like metal these days because we ate so much food out of cans.

Thursday, December 5, 2013

The lion's head

The ceramic lion's head with the big ceramic mane stared forward while its mouth dumped a steady trickle of steaming water into the bright blue tile tub below it. In the past, an electric pump siphoned the excess water away so the tub wouldn't overflow. Now a crude drain was improvised where the tub met the far wall, and a sloping path no wider than my thumb drew away the water so the spring could flow without complication as it always had.

I lowered myself into the water and inadvertently yelped as the searing heat surprised me. The old woman heard my cry and slid open the screen door to check on me.

"Too hot?" she asked. She had removed her wool winter coat and boots and now wore a violet sweater that matched her sandals.

"Just perfect." She didn't move. "Yes, it is quite hot," I admitted.

"Good for skin and bones. And breathe." She pantomimed a deep breath, directing her hands up from her stomach to her neck. "Good for lungs."

I made a show of inhaling while nodding at her. The wet air was salty and sulfurous, like old eggs. I must have made a face because she suppressed a giggle.

"I'll get food together. You rest," she said.

"If you wait a few minutes I can help."

"You're my guest. First one in a long time. Try to relax."

She slid the screen door shut and listened until I couldn't hear her footsteps anymore. Then I set my head back against the cold stone tiles and watched the lion's head, which I decided was staring at me.

The look reminded me of nature documentaries I'd seen as a child. In the videos animals approached the water with shifting eyes and springy joints springy, ready to flee at a moment's notice at the sight of a predator. When they finally drank from the water they did so cautiously, much like the lion's head that faced me, with their mouths angled down but keeping their eyes locked on the horizon.

These scenarios were about prey, not predators. Lions didn't need to keep as close of a watch, did they? Yet this lion refused to take his eyes off of me. Those glassy eyes didn't move but when I shifted in the tub they were still watching.

National Geographic said lions were predators. They hunted and moved in prides, protecting each other and sunning in the savannah, fearing no creature. Maybe the roles were correct in this case. Was I the predator, and the lion the prey?

This was not my intent. I apologized to the lion, closed my eyes, and submerged myself in the murky water. As I went down I could feel my hair floating up above me, free from gravity. My scalp tingled. The woman said the waters were restorative; maybe this is what she meant.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Shouta's skeleton

Imagine me as a skeleton. My skull is pearly off-white, hard and hollow except for maybe a spongy fragment lingering in the back. Smile at me I'll smile at you because I don't have a choice. Look closely and you'll see every last little flaw over a lifetime of poor dental hygiene. Use my head as a bowling ball if you want; see if I stop you.

The same is true for the rest of my bones, bleached white, perhaps with slight brown-red stains that you can't see because they're on my back or under my legs. Even if those stains are not visible I want you to know that they're there.

Everything else in here still has a place, too. The jeans and magenta nylon jacket keep out the cold, as does the new yellow sleeping bag. The tent is ragged but effective enough. I'm not picky when it comes to camping supplies. I just want something that almost works.

I laugh. Shouta, I say, why does a skeleton need clothes, or a backpack, or a tent to keep itself dry in a forest of endless damp? They're good for picking me out in the dark, which you might need since I can't tell you I'm in here. They're also symbols, but when did a skeleton need symbols. Those aren't for me. They're for you.

I sit cross-legged on my sleeping bag and take my leather Billabong wallet into my hands. It's smooth and worn out. My parents insist I replace it soon, but I ignore them because an old wallet is like an old friend. I accept it as it is.

The contents of my wallet is ordinary and spare. 5,000 yen in five notes is enough for a quick cab ride to the nearest village, perhaps 15 kilometers to the north and then east along a twisting road that borders the Jukai. There's also the receipt from my trip out here, for 110,000 yen, from a bit farther. The tent is dark because the forest is dark and I strain to see as the tent is opaque and blocks any light that percolates down through the trees and finds its way to me.

I dump the contents in my lap and set the money aside. The only other items remaining in my wallet are a bank card and my school ID. Both say my name. Shouta Doi. That's me.

I am my parents son even if they don't wish it anymore. I am here because of them and because of myself.

The forest is close and squeezes around me as branches press against the tent. Zipping the front flap doesn't help, as wind squeezes through microscopic gaps and find every millimeter of exposed skin. I shiver and my arms prickle with bumps as I slip into the sleeping bag.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013


I buried what was left of Jamison naked under a pile of rocks while Bennett stood guard. The mound rose up to about my knees and was mostly porous red volcanic rock mixed with chunks of obsidian.

"Got any words?" I asked as I placed a final few stones around the mound's edges.

"Nothing to say that ain't already been said before," Bennett replied.

Bravery was the currency of the damned. Jamison and others I met on the road traded in risk. People like him put lives on the line for a reward that will keep them moving or that will keep others from encroaching. Fires dotted the horizon, and around them were men who stared at their cracked hands and weighed how much they had left against what it would take to lift them a little bit higher out of the dirt.

Bennett rolled a cigarette around in his mouth and spat. He wore Jamison's olive canvas duster jacket, blood stains and all, even though it ran nearly up to his fingers and fit loosely around his shoulders. I took the brown wool scarf and his old leather hiking boots which, although torn around the edges, were still strong in the soles and sturdy over the Modoc's rocky, rolling terrain.

I regretted the decision at first while stripping down our friend, but felt better as my toes and neck warmed in the biting, near-freezing wind. The rest of the clothing was ratty and covered in blood and dirt, but we took it anyway, dividing the load between our packs. The only piece we left behind were the remnants of Jamison's glasses, which were ruined beyond use by the force of the shotgun blast which he had taken fully in the face.

The man who killed Jamison smelled our fire and came looking for us. We heard his stumbling approach through the brush. Bennett doused the fire and we slid down into the wash downhill from camp. Jamison joined us at first, but then we saw the man. He was desperate and dirty, wearing a big back that bulged with mysteries and potential rewards. But he also caressed and drummed his hands on a humongous shotgun which shook as he held it out before him.

The man was dirty, stained a dark brown like he had been rolling in mud. His face was a wild whorl of black hair. The hair on his head curved down over his forehead and covered his eyes, and his beard curled up to the point where it almost covered his mouth. At the center was a bulbous nose that jutted out like a mountain out of the clouds. The rest of him was like the rest of us, thin and angular like a skeleton that wore skin.

Jamison urged Bennett to kill the man square away, but Bennett refused. He gave us a sour look and then worked his way back up the slope. I guess he wanted to try to catch the man flat-footed, but it didn't work. The man swung about as Jamison charged and loosed a blast. It sheared off the entire right side of Jamison's face. Everything below his neck kept moving forward, while what was left of his head rocked backward. The result was that he crumpled down on his knees and his arms splayed wide. his blood followed the slope of the slight decline and was thick enough to collect and begin to trickle downhill.

Bennett drove off the man us with a single shot from his Sig which hit true in the man's shoulder. The round was one of only 12 we had left, but given how big his shotgun seemed after it carved Jamison in half, it was worth the expensive and the extra noise.

"We need to get moving," Bennett said. "I didn't but wing him. He may be back." He dropped the cigarette and stomped it out. "Did you see the look in his eyes? Man was desperate."

"Which one?" I asked. "Give me just one more minute."

I didn't deal in bravery because it's finite. I never met a person who pulls it out of nothing like a renewable resource or the product of some alchemy. The unfortunate problem was that I met many who thought that the veins ran deep and could be mined endlessly with little or no cost. As we sat around the fire and ate scrounged food and meager meat from equally-weak animals, I asked Jamison how he felt. He assured me of his strength mostly. Through his toothless half-grin I got stories of raids before he hitched up with me and Bennett, and who he'd killed, and how he did it, gesturing wildly with frenzied hands, punching the air like he was locked in an endless battle. But his bodies betrayed him. His hands shook when still and eyes darted suspiciously, looking for any desperate advantage.

That's why Bennett and I ran and why Jamison died. Cowardice was safety on the plains.

Monday, December 2, 2013


Down in the wash no
Rain and no tears flowed over
Hot black rocks. I hid
Under young juniper, not
Watching as you slid on by.