Werner and I spoke nothing of the night before, yet its weight on our collective consciousness was manifest as our breakfast of eggs and rice, filtered water, and dried fruit was held in silence, aught save the occasional scampering mouse or drumming strikes of the Great Spotted Woodpecker.
Looking across the tree stump, which served as our table, I couldn’t be sure if the old man’s musings were solely occupied by the unexplainable events or by something else; however, his gaze rarely wandered from where the yellow tape had rested among the moss-covered soil. Presently, though, the slack harbinger was nowhere to be seen and while I was fixed on what the two of us had witnessed, Werner was more concerned with what had disappeared the tape during the night. Nearly every skill, and modicum of knowledge I possessed, in the field of archeological study, I had learned predominantly from the works of Professor Werner, but I was still struggling to master the art of prioritization that seemed second nature to him.
Off the absence of that weathered line, and off my obvious concern, he spoke. “This deserves not another moment of our time, Mr. Hurston. This is not our land and our questions are not allowed here. Why should we be afforded any answers?”
He shoved the last chunk of dried apricot into his mouth and looked at me with a countenance suddenly clear of burden. “Polite obligation dictates that I should ask how you slept, but based on everything I saw, coming from your sleep-sac – the thrashing and whatnot – I know it was not well.”
“Well enough for travel” I replied honestly, but my voice was not as untroubled as his.
“Ghosts are but illusions of the past, seen through the eyes of a cynic” he said, attempting to bring order to my chaotic thoughts. “Chasing things we label as supernatural, or paranormal, if you are so inclined, is a fool’s errand. They are simply disquieted memories and need not be brought into the present. Got it? Good. Now… the matter at hand: the Whispering Cave. That is our target today, correct? But I cannot seem to find it on the map.”
“You won’t find it on any map” I said. “Nor will you find it on any manifest, or on the lips of any tour guide, but believe me, it’s there. A mile to the northwest.”
I retrieved a compass from one of the cargo pockets of my khaki pants and brought it to the nearest shaft of sunlight. Subconsciously, my headed tilted from one side to the other, trying to gain bearing on the compass’ needle as it spun wildly, pausing on North, then South, and flipping from East to West. Werner let out a small chuckle.
“We are a half a mile in, Edward. In this forest, navigation tools are like fingerprints, in that no two will tell you the same thing. These lava fields play hell on the earth’s magnetism and trying to follow that needle will only result in vertigo. At this point, it is nothing but a fancy paperweight. ”
He laid the map across the tree stump, oriented it to my position, and then relieved me of the compass. Set on putting his words into practice, he placed it on the top edge of the map to hold it still against the sporadic breeze. I watched his eyes then drift up to an invisible chalkboard as if mulling over that day’s plan, all the while tapping between different spots on the map. He spoke out loud, but to no one in particular. “Northwest… one mile.”
To any outsider, Professor Werner’s sense of direction and navigation were perfectly preternatural; however, seeing as how he considered those notions illogical, at best, he credited his abilities to the decades of detached expeditions through areas whose remoteness and woeful inhabitability paralyzed even the most hardened traveler. The old man’s soliloquy was laying out the best possible course for our day and, if we were to reach proximity to the cave by nightfall, I knew better than to interrupt.
Through the timorous, waiting silence, outside the bounds of his voice, I picked up on distant drops of melting snow as they splashed in rhythmic clusters against the crags and into the puddles. The meditative dripping, and the way it mixed with the sunlight, playing off the branches and leaves and reflecting the gray pumice of the mountain, created an unwelcoming harbor for the concept of time. That a year had no more right to passage than a day had, in that singular moment, I was overwhelmed by the clear reality. The wind strummed through the evergreen needles overhead with a velvety brushing sound like that of a softly played snare drum, and the vibrant, red berries of the holly trees bobbed to the organic fusion around our campsite.
In more areas than not, the soil on the forest floor was so thin that the tree roots swelled and spread out, creeping and crawling in the eternal search for reasonable purchase. Their wooded tentacles swarmed my thoughts in a choreographed dance of evolution, while countless millennia of verdant life grew and died and adapted to the territory under mountain’s reign. Ghosts of the past, and the spirits yet to be released, strode about us in loathsome marches of death and I found myself toeing the horizon of knowledge and connection.
I became one with awareness and understood that guarded within the fathomed depths of the forest was a reconciliation I had hitherto never known and that the forest offered salvation from all the wrongdoings of the world, I found myself unable to doubt. In my mind, the secrets of how the Aokigahara Jukai forest was able to lure countless persons to eternal rest were surfacing like pockets of air through the skin of an oily lake. For the briefest of moments, the calm freedom put my nerves at bay. Oh, how the dancing trees hypnotized me. Oh, how those serpentine roots teased my soul, and oh, how above all else, the mountain called to me. I desperately wanted nothing more than to answer.
“Daylight is burning” Werner said, jostling me from reverence. “Let your mind wander in this forest and it’s likely never to return.”
“Did you hear that?” I asked. Those dreamy words struck my ears before I realized they had been spoke. Did you hear that? Hear? Was that the right word for it? Feel, I internally corrected myself. “Did you feel that, professor?”
His brow pursed, his lips wrinkled, and he looked at me with an expression that said he found me rather amusing, but in a worrisome sort of way. “Hear that? Feel that? I did nothing for nothing and it would probably serve you best to do likewise.”
As if just discovering them, I stared at my outstretched hands, marveling at their veiny backs and calloused palms, and compared their vivid edges to that of the forest surrounding me. For the first time in my life, I was convinced that I was real. It took me many seconds longer that it should have to acknowledge the load of equipment Werner dropped at my feet.
“Come now, Mr. Hurston. If you have swilled the ayahuasca, I am quite interested to know why you are not sharing. However, if your current condition is symptomatic of anything less than that, I must demand you get a move on. I’d like to have camp set up before sunset.”
Instantly, I was rocked by the sensation of being dropped from precipitous heights, falling forever, only to crash land in my own body. The truth of location and of purpose and heinous implication weighed like an additional gravity on my bones, and although it took me a moment to comprehend Werner’s instructions, and his agitated expression, I was happy to oblige to whatever his orders may have been if it meant that our exit from that area was going to be swift. He must have recognized the fervor with which I swept all of our belongings into the various sacks because I heard not a single word of disapproval from him. After hoisting a load over each shoulder, I took off in the first direction my eyes landed on.
“Edward…” Werner said, still standing where I left him, one hand on his hip and the other firmly clutching a machete.
I turned to speak, yet my feet continued me forward. “What is it? Are you coming?”
He flicked one of his gangly fingers in a direction that I hadn’t previously considered. “We are going… that way. I think it’s better if I take the lead, don’t you?”
Our progress through the thicket was hard, but productive and although Werner was no longer in my direct line of sight, I was able to follow his path with little trouble. The same could not be said for staying upright on the choppy, irregular ground and the bits of undergrowth, fell by his blade, added another layer of instability to each footstep. When we blazed that new trail, some hours before, I was convinced that even equipped with a power tool, no man could have made better time through the harsh tangle of forest than the professor had. The lines that his machete chopped were crisp and clean and produced a tunnel, through the vegetation, that had no problem accommodating us. As long as I kept his distant chopping within ear-shot, and stuck to the tunnel, I would have no issues maintaining course.
I had no need for a clock, or any other timekeeping device, to know that we were getting close to our destination when the first breathy, stagnant syllable, saddled upon the dismal breeze, tickled my right ear and froze my spine. That the Whispering Cave was going to stand up to its namesake, I was convinced. It was no sentence, nor was it even a word; it was a simple vocalization of sadness that stung me. Before my insides could send warm blood to thaw my nerves, a similar whisper came in from the left. I bundled myself tighter against its chill and picked up the pace, praying that my slapping, crashing footsteps would keep my attention focused on the path ahead.
To my good fortune, yet against the protesting gossip of the forest and disapproval of the great stone man, brooding, breathing and clutching the horizon, the ground began to level out and I was able to close the gap between myself and the sound of Werner’s path-making. As I gained confidence in my dexterity, I found myself recklessly sprinting through the tunnel, toward the shadows which were suddenly, and curiously void of any sounds other than my footfalls. I called out to Werner between scratchy breaths, but what replied was the giggling, cackling, cacophonous whispers. Suddenly, there appeared a fork in the corridor. I did not hesitate to take the path on the right.
The vegetation was thick and the light of the setting sun was broken by the canopy, but the humidity was no less than overwhelming. Each of my pounding footfalls loosed beads of sweat into my already stinging eyes and I called out to Werner again, only to hear my own voice echo back. Mount Fuji was close. I could feel its sardonic embrace beckoning. I flailed my arms at anything remotely in my way as I tore down the ever-shrinking corridor.
Where the sun had successfully broken through to the forest floor, a shadowy pall spread over my view in a mélange of fluttering debris and the vertiginous depths of the forest relieved my rational mind of duty. I was all at once in an aborted reality and saturated with panic. A feverish glance backwards showed that my entrance into that hellish pathway had disappeared. I called for Werner again. I screamed his name. I begged for him to show himself. My ankle caught on something and I hit the ground with a jarring thud, sending our equipment tumbling in every direction.
I was certain that the fall had not caused me to lose consciousness, yet when I rolled over to free myself of the obstacle, the forest had morphed into a murky, nebulous blackness that one could only associate with the darkest hours before dawn. I frantically searched the ground until discovering the flashlight under my outstretched fingertips.
It produced a powerful beam that illuminated not a branch caught in my shoelaces, nor a wayward root wrapped around my foot. A hoary, skeletal hand, spotted with bits of fresh soil, reflected the light so brilliantly that, at first, I believed it to be unreal. The hand was large to the point that the tip of its middle finger and thumb overlapped one another as it clutched onto my ankle with great force from bygone muscles. I followed the light as it traced along the thing’s radial and ulna bones to where they protruded from the scorched earth. Petrification set in and every breath I could hope to muster, and every ability I had to speak, were fossilized. My eyes and that hand; for a moment, we were all that existed. It felt like an eternal stalemate in some gruesome, horrific staring-contest.
“Werner?” I somehow managed to push out through a trembling jaw.
Seemingly at the sound of my voice, the hand wrenched tighter on my leg and began pulling me toward a fate more dreadful than anything I wanted to imagine.
“Eric!” I yelled until my lungs burned. I dropped the flashlight to claw at the dirt, while kicking at the chalky abomination, but that only strengthened its grip.
In the beam of the arrant light, a steeled glint flew down through my vision, followed by a loud snap. I had been pulling so hard against the hand that upon being freed, the momentum forced me backwards.
I snatched the flashlight from the ground, trying to locate the hand, but found Werner standing over me. The top few inches of his machete had been buried into the soil and on either side of its blade were the cleanly severed halves of a mossy tree root.
Only when the light came to rest on his grinning face did he finally speak. “Well, my friend, it seems this root will never mess with you again.”
He retrieved the machete, and then flicked the tip of the root at me with a chuckle. I scurried back from the thing, alternating the light between it and him before pulling myself up. He extended a hand to help, but I brushed him away just as I brushed off the dirt from my pants.
“You were in a tizzy” he said, then turned his attention to our scattered equipment. “I cannot say that I have ever heard anyone scream like that before. Are you feeling all right?”
“Piss off” I snapped. “You didn’t see what I saw.”
He offered me a canteen, then flicked on his own flashlight. We finished repacking the equipment in silence.
That night was so impenetrable that my eyes scarcely registered any difference between when they were closed as opposed to opened and with that vital sense rendered near useless, my ears obeyed the proceeding eons of evolution by picking up the slack. It was one of the most uncomfortable situations I had hitherto found myself in and to my internal cinema, the nighttime sounds of the forest projected a jumbled landscape of a misshapen world. At some great distant to the east, the nocturnal exodus from the Saiko Bat Cave played out with the flapping of leathery wings, soaring above the sea of trees, and the soft squeaking of the chiropteras’ natural sonar resonated as they awakened, hungry and ready for food.
Something darted through the undergrowth at my left. A mouse, I thought. A mole, perhaps. In all reality, it was one or the other, but to my displaced imagination, the lightless environment morphed that mild scampering into a hulking, monstrous, mountain-beast, tiptoeing its way into the privacy of our camp. Unlike the bats, who were out looking for their fill of beetles and mosquitoes and all manner of flying insect, these ghastly fiends satisfy themselves by masticating on the bones of human explorers. Dripping venom and fully eight inches in length, their fangs were doubtless being driven toward its target, my exposed nape, by a pair of predatory eyes that have evolved to hunt its prey under the tapestry of night. Another mouse or mole followed right behind the first one, yet I was convinced that it was an entire brood of those ravenous, fanged beasts of doom, waiting for the right moment to steal me away. That the bile rising in my throat was to be my last meal, I believed with no amount of uncertainty.
“Are you still not speaking to me, Mr. Hurston?” Werner asked from the dark. His words were followed by two, sharp snapping sounds and within seconds, the upper-half of his body was illuminated by the glow of an alien-green color emanating from two large light-sticks. My eyes, and nerves, welcomed the awkward hue and my mind was bathed clean of the monstrous visages.
I let out a long, calculated sigh, trying to remember the last time I had actually taken a breath. “I’m not not speaking to you.”
The old man passed me a light-stick, then scanned the immediate area where the green, glowing sphere stretched just far enough to grace the tips of only the lowest, drooping leaves. “By the sun, we walk with Hemera; by the moon, we flee from Erebus.”
“I’m sorry?” I said, finding it hard to focus. My sanity ached for the refuge of a warm campfire, but I knew that we could not risk being discovered. We were too far in to be dragged away now and, worse still, revealing the location of the artifact, we so fervidly sought, was not an option. Even the glow of the sticks was too much for Werner’s comfort, and that he activated them solely to appease my disquiet, he didn’t have to vocalize for me to be sure.
“To think that any forest can have a personality, as we call it, is an unsettling conclusion, let alone a place like this that apparently has two of them. You will not find a more delicate place on earth, during the day, yet you would be hard-pressed to find a more terrorizing place at night. This old sod thrives on fear, Edward. You mustn’t feed it.”
“This… place, the rumors… they don’t scare you, professor?” My voice cracked, exposing a repressed weakness and that I came off as a terrified child – a peasant in that forest of kings – I was certain.
Werner looked at me through the green glow of his light-stick and the way it reflected off his weathered face gave him a more sinister countenance than I had ever seen. “If you so much as think the word ‘Bigfoot’, I will leave you here; however, I shall not voice my answer aloud. Let’s just say, regardless of what undeserved pedestal you have placed me atop, I am still human. To suggest that I don’t feel the allure of these shadows, and that I am not constantly looking over my shoulder, would be a lie.”
His confession, albeit a vague one, relaxed me to the state in which I could find comfort on the forest floor and I saw that Werner was finding his own amenity as he spread out on a sleeping bag and laid his head on a rolled blanket.
He placed the light on his chest and, almost forgetting our situation for a moment, I chuckled at the way the green glow rose from his body like the Mothership was calling home his soul. Lost in my entertainment, I hadn’t noticed that he withdrew a dented, silver flask from his pocket. Without looking, he handed it across to me. “I was saving this for whatever outcome greets us tomorrow, but it is clear that you need it tonight.”
My modesty and hesitation had been abandoned at the tree line, days before, so I was not shy about pouring the unknown liquid down my throat. Right away, a fruity sting hit my taste buds, and it paired with the telltale flavor of unmalted barley. It had been ages since I imbibed in a decadent, Irish whiskey and I welcomed its warmth. In under a minute, my nerves went fuzzy and the forest seemed much less imposing. I was careful not to spill a drop as I handed it back to the professor.
“Thank you” I said. “Eighteen year old?”
After swishing a swallow around his tongue and drawing in a quick breath to supposedly enhance the flavor, he answered, “Hardly. Twenty-two.”
The liquor was revitalizing and I felt like I could spend another three days in the sea of trees, that is, until my body flushed out the courage.
He glanced at the flask, donning a proud smile. “You can keep your psychedelics, Graham Hancock. A pull of Irish tap water answers all my questions.”
My eyes squinted, looking up as if his quip was spelled out in the stars. I replied with a cool nod.
After a long moment, pregnant with the unknown, he spoke. “My path is obvious, Mr. Hurston, but you… why are you here?”
“There are three things you don’t discuss over drinks, Eric” I answered. “Religion being number one, followed by politics, and then money.”
“Bah” he scoffed. “I am not asking about your devotional slant, you clod. Why are you here? Why are you in this bleak place, searching for this elusive ‘key’ to our existence?”
His words stayed me because I had honestly not begun to think about my goals concerning the discovery of the Jade Hymnal; however, the whiskey had taken over the helm of my inhibitions and set my tongue adrift. I spoke of the first thing that came to mind. “My wife, Mercy.”
“Your wife, Mercy?” he replied with an almost undetectable amount of sarcasm. “How chivalrous.”
I peered through the green lights and spoke. “What we seek is the key to your legacy, and rightfully so. I want that for you. And mincing no words, I would not be on this path if it wasn’t for your teachings, your knowledge, and your passion. You deserve to be immortalized, professor, but I don’t seek such things. When Clementine agreed to be my wife, I made a promise that our future together would be more exquisite than any she could imagine. I promised her the world, Eric, and what lies down in that cave is the resolution to that promise. It’s really as simple as that.”
“Admirable” he replied with a drunken yawn while placing his light between us. He then rolled over to face away from me. “Save your strength, my boy, for tomorrow you’ll be shouldering the weight of the world, and my legacy. Good night, Edward Hurston, husband of Mercy.”
“Good night, Eric.”