Looming on the horizon, the ageless slopes of Mount Fuji rose into the heavens while the canopy, under which steeped the great mother of bereavement, cowered at its feet in dense groups of fir and cypress trees. At over twelve-thousand feet, the peak of the dormant volcano disappeared into the clouds and the moment I set eyes upon it, my thoughts were impregnated by Yamata no Orochi, the terrifying, eight-headed dragon god of the wind and the seas who lies in wait from the clouded precipice, ravenous for explorers whose ardent disrespect for the land would lead them directly into the maw of the exalted beast, hence, damning them to enlistment among the armies of dead that forever trod the boundaries of the forest. I leaned forward from the backseat and tapped our driver, Juri, on the shoulder, pointing two fingers at an area just north of the mountain. In reply to my silent command, he darted suspicious, grayed eyes at me in the rearview mirror before speaking.
“Aokigahara Jukai is bad place” he said, focusing back on the kilometers of road that separated us from our destination. “I stop soon. You walk rest of the way.”
I looked to Werner, whose sleeping form occupied the other half of the backseat, then to our amount of supplies and equipment in the back of the van. Travel was nothing new to the professor and as much was evident by the way he slept through the entire flight and subsequent escort to Leeds Campus. Needless to say, the prospect of being sole transport for our collection of gear, over the long trek from wherever Juri decided to drop us off, was not one I was excited about.
Hoping a conversation would distract Juri from stopping until we were as close as possible, I grabbed his attention. “You’re a believer, then, yes?” I said, hinting at the numerous deaths that have taken place inside the forest; deaths supposedly delivered by sinister, paranormal influences.
He drew in a long breath, giving his native words time to translate in his head. “No, Mr. Eddie, I do not believe. But my wife and her sister did. The power of the forest is dark and strong. Eleven months ago, they went to Aokigahara.”
The manner in which the old local’s voice and eyes drifted into the realm of memory told me that he took the bait. I let him run with the line as I tried to raise Werner from sleep.
“They believed in the tenants of the forest” Juri added. “They wanted to see for themselves.”
I was as well-versed as anyone on the legends of the “Suicide Forest”, and all the tragedies within its wooded frontier, but I goaded him further. “What happened then, Juri? What did they see?”
His sorrowed eyes looked at my reflection in the mirror and he spoke in such a way that it felt like he was keeping a secret from the great mountain. “The ground there is fertile, Mr. Eddie, but only death grows in Aokigahara. I cannot know what Kazuko and Akemi saw and, therefore, I cannot believe. But, you stay in there too long, you can ask them for yourself.”
I was instantly regretful of my prying as his eyes broadcast to me a deep pain of loss and loneliness and before either of us could say another word, a gravelly voice rose from next to me.
“Are we there?” Werner asked. Calculating the sum of location and time took him a long moment. “Edward, are we there?”
The van slowed, eventually coming to a stop just a few feet off the shoulder of the thin road.
“Well, nearly there” I answered. “We’re on foot the rest of the way.”
Werner scanned the road ahead of us and without following his gaze, I knew that his eyes had landed upon the palisade, hugging the edge of the world, as they widened in amazement.
“Simply fantastic, isn’t it?” he whispered.
Juri turned to Werner and I and after a bloated, thoughtful moment, he narrowed his eyes, silently sizing up our abilities or our determination – I couldn’t decipher which. Regardless, I knew that he labeled us foolish for the plans we had laid out.
“Four days, Mr. Eddie” he said, revisiting our arrangement. “Right here. Four days from now. I pick you up. One minute later, then I’m gone. Four—“
“–Days!” Werner belted out, aggravated. “Yes. Four days. We understand, Juri. For the love of–” He shoved a crumpled wad of paper money into the man’s hand and exited the vehicle. “Come on, Edward.”
“We’ll see you then” I told Juri, then proceeded to unload our things while Werner offered little help under the claim of tight, cramped muscles. I was annoyed that our first day of the trip would be spent with me carrying, and setting up our entire campsite, but I had accepted the full extent of grunt work to be on my shoulders, as was stated in our deal, when Werner agreed to be my partner.
“I say again… simply fantastic” he said from under a set of large binoculars, through which he was inspecting the finer details of the mountainous ridges. “Mr. Hurston. Our location has changed; inventory is required.”
I quickly realized that agreeing to be his partner was no less than allowing him to be my superior.
Mentally counting the time it would take to unpack, tally, and then repack everything was daunting, not to mention the fact that we were only a few feet from a busy road. “That’s first on my list when we get to camp, Professor. I’m sure everything is present and accounted for.”
He held back naught, and I was certain that his irritated sigh had been delivered with enough concussive force to be felt in Juri’s van as it disappeared over the return horizon.
“The margin between Gallant and Goofus is delicate” he said, massaging the bridge of his nose. “We are toeing the ledge of immortality, Mr. Hurston, and below is a world just waiting to be conclusively changed forever. Are we to be stopped from taking that plunge by your inability to follow simple instructions? When you step backward, Mr. Hurston, someone else is stepping forward to take your place. Now, do you want to make history, or do you simply want to read about it?”
“–If you don’t mind, the sun will be down soon; inventory, please.” With that, he turned his gait, and his focus, toward the yawning horizon of the forest.
I had no desire to let the next four days stretch on painfully longer than was necessary, but I knew what stakes were at hand. Offering no further argument, I found the nearest grassy clearing and began a running total of our things, if for no other reason than to appease Werner’s stringent field-protocols. After all, he was the expert and despite all the traits that were making him a pain to work with, or more appropriately work for, I appreciated that there were even-greater stakes for the old man. That this discovery, and its subsequent introduction to the world, would forever cement his name into elite registers, alongside very few others that have changed the dynamic of history, my intuitions did well at assuring me.
Neither Werner, nor myself, had any firsthand experience with the rugged infamy of the forest and despite our fifty-plus years of collective, dedicated study, no athenaeum in the world could have prepared us for the lethal impenetrability that stretched out as far to the west and east as we could see. If it had been any other relic of mankind, regardless of age or origin, that lay hidden deep within that forest of agony, I can assure you that we would have turned heels and put the forsaken place firmly in the vapor trails of the next plane departing for home. Yet, the item that drove us to be presently standing at the tree-toothed entrance to hell was no less than a disruption to every established curriculum and aspiration and ideal recorded by man. And, to us, that seemed worth any price.
The forest floor consisted mostly of volcanic rock that undulated in rapid slopes and where the ancient lava-flow had collapsed, razor-sharp edges threatened every footstep. Also, layered on the treacherous rocks were twisting, vascular tree roots that made even the slightest, ill-calculated movement an exercise in dexterity. And, if all of that wasn’t enough, immense, foreboding signs were posted, at seemingly random intervals, warning of the dangers inherent within the forest and pleading with the would-be self-murderers to turn back, and that life is short, and to seek help. I was having trouble digesting it all.
Professor Werner had all but dissolved into the shadows, at the far brim of sight, by the time I managed to ingress more than a few yards. I’ll never again doubt the physical limitations, or abilities, as the case seemed to be, of a man fevered by the prospect of standing alone at the top of the academic world.
As expected, our paced was slow and my present role as the pack-mule of our duo was arduous, but we managed to reach our intended destination with enough time to get a camp site laid out before the hoary mountain swallowed what was left of the daylight.
That night remained as sleepless, for me, as the many leading up to our expedition, and in the midst of navigating the dark and deceptively jagged terrain, I sidled about the perimeter of our campsite in an insomniac haze. Halfway through the dozenth-or-so pass, I took a moment to gaze through the knuckled branches overhead, trying to just enjoy my surroundings. When I left home for this mysterious land, that was one of the two orders my wife, Clementine, gave me: “The path will become clear to you. Do not abandon.” and “Remember to take time for yourself, Edward.” With her consuming my thoughts, I smiled at the night and dove my hand into the pocket of my pants, clutching the letter she had sent with me. I squeezed it tight, hoping that it was some sort of channel of fantasy, through which I could convey my emotions to its author. The pallor of the forest withered to nothing when exposed to Mercy’s tenderness and, free of such bindings, I opened myself to the moon and everything beyond.
As if designed by an omnipotent power, wholly ineffable by any manner of language, the effaced, cyclopean angles of Mount Fuji dominated the cosmos and where a dusky pall of clouds struck veins of solidified ash, sylph-like mists rolled down in filmy cataracts. The great man of status, as some translate it to in these parts, seemed all-at-once emerging from the edge of the known universe and yet so close that I was drawn to nestle in his embrace. It possessed an elegant singularity in which the concepts of time and consciousness merged with the realities of and life and death. It was hypnotizing and I felt, for a precipitous moment, that I understood the attraction to never depart from that place, at least not as a physical being.
I laid Clementine’s note open on the lit ground and collected a pinch of soil, excited by the upcoming revelations. Poised over the letter, my fingers began to sprinkle the dirt and my eyes marveled at how the paper instantly started vibrating.
A sharp wind whistled along the ground, severing my concentration and interrupting something to my far right. I only caught a glimpse of yellow before the breeze exited and left the area still again. The color and sheen of the object seemed perfectly unnatural to the forest. I gathered the letter and, with the flashlight pointed at my feet, I made my way to it.
For minutes, I stared down at an endless length of yellow tape that had been tattered by years of exposure. These trail-markers, left by those who still maintained the prospect of hope, were commonplace inside the many books I had read, about the forest, yet seeing one in person brought a sour, unfamiliar weight to my heart. I nearly jumped when Werner’s tired voice tore through the stillness.
“Regretful, isn’t it?” he said in regard to the tape. I simply nodded and turned the flashlight to face him.
Whether at its most fleeting, or most destructive, if there is one single experience that every member of the human race can identify with, it is loneliness. The desire for attention and affection is not just superficial fancy, it is intrinsic to our being. The “Suicide Forest” garnered its name not for its solitude and apparent detachment from the rest of the world, but for its ability to draw in those whose sadness or loneliness or pain has turned inescapable. For as much as I wished it to be untrue, it seemed likely that far beyond where the yellow tape disappeared into that stygian abattoir, the remains of the one the loneliest people on earth could be found. By Werner’s grimaced expression, evident in the beam of the flashlight, I knew that he felt as I did.
“Some people never find their way out” he added. Despite all the ways he had been able to hide his personal life behind the honors and distractions of academia, something about the pain with which he delivered that seemingly innocuous statement betrayed him. Prowling in the submerged timbre of his voice lurked a pain only experienced by those who have suffered true loss.
That all the times I felt depressed ever culminated to anything similar to what the bearer of that yellow tape must have felt, I would be fooling myself to say. While I will forever sympathize with the many souls still at unrest throughout that ancient grove, I will never be able to fully empathize with them. The lingering sadness in the air somehow made the tape feel heavier as I lowered myself to inspect it closer. Bits of it cracked between my fingers and I felt a slanted sense of wrongdoing by even touching the odious thing.
For a moment, I contemplated following the tape to its very end. “Should we… do something?”
Werner squatted down to me, then rested his hand on my shoulder. Dangling from his fingertips, a pair of old eyeglasses caught the flashlight beam and reflected the world beyond their thick lenses in a twisting carnival of imagery. For the first time since leaving home, he was on my level, both physically and emotionally. “What’s done is done, Edward? What more is there to do?”
The professor had a simple, but heuristic manner of communicating and, once again, I found the only appropriate response was to nod in agreement with his words. I was mindlessly gathering the slack of the tape into my hand as he spoke.
“Besides, even if we were to think it better to do something, rather than nothing, we are not welcome to interfere with their customs. Our best course is to leave this thing as you found it and get some rest before—“
The tape ripped from my hand as if an anchor on the other end was suddenly discharged, followed by distant pounding footsteps. It startled me so that I fell backwards, taking Werner to the ground with me. We watched as it was pulled at such a rate that when it finally met its limits, it twanged with a taut snap, like a rubber band. Werner looked to me for answers, and I to him, then we both moved our eyes back to the tape. Over our panting breaths, we could hear its tensile strength being stretched near to overload as it stayed hovering, tightly suspended at our present eye-level off the ground. I raised a febrile hand, my fingertips stretching to touch the thing of disbelief.
“No.” Werner clasped my wrist before I could get any further. “It’s this place. The mountain… it is blasphemous. It will play with your mind.”
I shot him an icy stare. “Are you telling me you don’t see this?” Then, the tape fell to the ground, more limp and unmoving than the moment I first laid eyes on it. His grip went equally slack.
“Come on” he said, helping me to my feet. “Leave it. I’ve slept more than three men since we left. It’s your turn. We have a long day tomorrow.”
I looked deep into the shadows, back up toward the peak where the man of status resides among the clouds, fondling further machinations, and then back to the professor. Again, I could only nod. After passing him the flashlight, I zipped myself into the nearest sleeping bag.