The Sea of Trees by Rusty Gladdish
And judgement and justice
Are what we must face
If our lives have been selfish
And lacking in grace.
A fragment from the epic poem Seasonal Affective Disorder By Simon R. Gladdish
Sheltering below the glacial beauty of the great Mount Fuji is the ancient Aikogahara forest. It is a mystical place full of myth and legend. It is said that because of the magnetic composition of the soil, compasses do not give accurate readings; so many people never find their way out.
Their spirits roam the forest wailing in the winds that blow through the mighty trees. Here in the roaring silence of these archaic woods people come to end their lives. The Aikogahara has become the most famous venue in Japan for committing suicide. The sad and senseless evidence of wasted lives is to be found throughout the woods. Some partly decomposed bodies hang from trees while others are strewn across the forest floors like so many broken, discarded dolls. The Aikogahara council makes regular forays into the forest to collect the bodies, where they are removed and taken to a hut and laid to rest.
Part one: The beginning of the end
It looked like a simple butcher’s knife. She had been slicing the chicken with it only yesterday morning. Then, it had been stained with the blood of the unfortunate bird. She gave a shiver as she remembered that when she washed it under the tap, blood and bits of flesh formed a little red puddle in the white enamel sink. Now, Yoko held that knife firmly. Dark red blood dripped from the point, stippling the leaves of the low growing bushes.
Except for the sound of the wind rustling through the leaves of the tall trees, the forest was silent. The great trees of the Aokigahara forest strained upwards towards the sunlight but their lichen covered roots writhed along the floor like an ocean of snakes. Yoko looked down at her husband. His body, in its white short- sleeved shirt and beige linen chinos slumped awkwardly against a tree. A dark red stain had spread across his stomach. His head had fallen forward. His sad brown eyes with their puzzled expression, were now hidden from view. She looked wildly around her still gripping the knife. The patches of blue sky visible through the trees became grey and a chilly breeze moaned through the wood, making the branches snap and creak. Yoko gazed at the bloodstained knife in her hand as if she was seeing it for the first time. She raised it to her throat and pressed the tip against her neck. Then a cry of despair escaped her lips, slicing into the stillness and ringing like a bell of bad omen round the hushed, quiescent forest. She began to shake uncontrollably and the knife dropped from her fingers.
A fine drizzle filtered through the spring green canopy overhead and began to soak into her thin silk blouse. Tiny spots of blood speckled her hands and arms and her collar. She stood for a moment, her body trembling. The spell was broken when she was suddenly startled by the distant sound of voices in another part of the woods. Without a backward glance at Noburo she turned and plunged forward into the dense shrubs.
Waves of undulating branches met over her head and she disappeared from view.
Part Two: Noburo:
When Noburo opened his eyes the room was so black, that for a moment he felt like a blind man must feel. He was faced with complete nothingness. There was only a suffocating darkness without shape, form or colour. He lay there for a few seconds, eyes wide, staring into the negative space. Then he got out of bed and stood in front of the window. He was at a loss to know why he’d woken. He glanced at the red digits on his bedside clock. It was 5.55am. He could hear Yoko breathing in the room next door through the paper -thin partition. She lay on a futon on the floor submerged in a narcotic slumber, weighted down by a heavy quilt.
He raised the blinds gently and looked up at the sky studded with myriad stars and wondered. He wondered why Yoko didn’t sleep with him any more and he wondered why he didn’t dream these days. He used to dream vividly every night and be able to recount them in great detail to Yoko the next morning. Nowadays, his sleep was broken and troubled.
It had been a shock when his boss had called him into the office and had given him the news of his early retirement, murmuring something about ‘restructuring’. Outwardly he had been calm and reasonable, refusing to betray the turbulent emotions that churned his guts. That night in the bar, he shared the bad news with his friends. They were sympathetic but some had already been awarded ‘the seat by the window’ (passed over for promotion, but not formally laid off) after a lifetime’s work. It was an ominous sign of the times.
On the train home Noburo sat staring impassively at the floor. After drinking numerous glasses of Sake he still wasn’t drunk. He still wasn’t sufficiently anesthetized to tell Yoko that after forty years service he was no longer employed by the Fujitsu Insurance Company. He felt abandoned and isolated. It was as though he had suddenly lost his parents and left an orphan. It was almost like bereavement. Fujitsu Insurance had been his life and now it was over. Noburo mourned its passing.
He had been with the company since he left university. As an only child, his parents had been delighted. From the tender age of three Noburo’s professional life had been mapped out. He was to become a salary man like his father before him. His parents made sure he went to the best schools that would ensure his entry into a top university. This was a secure and respected position and was guaranteed for life. Once he had joined the Fujitsu insurance firm it immediately became his life. He was an intelligent and astute man and by securing several new contracts every month he showed how invaluable he could be. In return he was methodically trained in all aspects of the different departments. On his way to ‘enlightenment’ and ultimately, a high salary, he made many friends. Young, enthusiastic men like himself. They trod the same path, working, eating and socialising together. They worked late into the night, and by means of release from the day’s drudgery, caroused in the bars downtown into the early hours.
Noburo’s diligence, determination and popularity with his peers came to the attention of his superiors and he was selected for promotion. He was made divisional general manager. The company swallowed him whole and became his ‘family.’ Like all families, the firm continued to make more and more demands on his time until he was working late every night. When he arrived home the apartment was in darkness except for the little night light in the hall and Yoko was in bed asleep. When he left for work early the next morning she had hardly stirred. Their precious weekends were often sacrificed to the golf course where he conducted important business deals. However, unquestioning loyalty to his employers meant that he remained uncritical of their procedures. On the brief occasions he had time to reflect, usually on the last train home, he wondered if by surrendering his will so completely to the company he had sacrificed some part of his relationship with Yoko.
Sometimes he felt as though he was sleepwalking through life. His recent retirement meant that the luxury of life’s certainties were no longer in place. The comfortable predictability of routine had dissolved into days without purpose. Yawning gaps appeared between his daily rituals. Weeks stretched into infinity of euni. His work had been everything to him. He felt somehow diminished. His status as a man, the provider, the head of the household, was being gradually eroded by the removal of his job.
He stood there shrouded in silence, clenching and unclenching his fists, overwhelmed with feelings of impotence.
Sighing heavily he slid open the window. An icy stream of air slipped into the room. Impervious to the wintry blast he gazed out at the neon vista and the stark silhouettes of the trees caught in the sodium glare of the streetlights. His eyes strayed back to the clock. It was 6.05am. The Tokyo express would be speeding towards the city now, packed with salary men, faces ashen with fatigue, leaning against each other for support. Gearing up for another marathon of a day, which would end in the early hours in a sushi bar with sake -soaked colleagues or succumbing to the charms of a young Geisha.
He shivered and turned away from the window. He got dressed quickly and padded into the kitchen.
He opened the fridge and took out a bottle of milk. He sat hunched at the table absently drinking out of the bottle, the fridge door swinging open. The light from inside the fridge cast an eerie glow over his solitary figure. An overwhelming feeling of loneliness suddenly descended upon him from nowhere and settled heavily on his shoulders.
On the fridge door among an assortment of magnets was a photo of a little boy with dark brown eyes creased up in a child’s innocent laughter. Yoko doted upon her little nephew and had photographs of him all over the house. She had been unable to have children. It had been a bitter blow to them both. To ease the pain Yoko had thrown herself into her job. Books had always been important to her. The shelves on the walls of their house were groaning with books. They were her drug, her escape, her refuge and her consolation. So when she was offered a part time job at the local library she took it without hesitation.
As long as she was happy that was all that mattered. He only wanted the best for her. That’s why he had worked so hard for so long. He wanted give her a large house with good quality furniture. Unlike his parent’s modest apartment which was so small and cramped. Once, when he was home for a rare weekend, Yoko held a birthday party. Their usually quiet house vibrated with western music and rang with female laughter. Young women chattered like a flock of magpies and some sang along to the music in their thin high voices. He had felt awkward but secretly proud. So proud that he had been able to provide Yoko with a beautiful house and garden to entertain her friends. Bowing and smiling, he had discreetly withdrawn into the study. It seemed such a long time ago.
Now that he had more time at home Yoko was never there. He had to admit that they had been leading separate lives for many years but that could all change. Now he was at home they could spend more time together. If only he could rekindle the flame that once sparked their love. She was so different to the girl he married all those years ago. She had been so shy and demure and anxious to please him. Now he felt he no longer knew her. At first he thought he it was his imagination when she seemed to be trying to avoid him. What with her job and her numerous classes and meetings she was hardly ever in the house. They almost never ate together anymore or enjoyed each other’s company. Sometimes he arrived home very late. Yoko was already in bed fast asleep, but he never stayed out all night like some of his colleagues. They often spent the night in an alcoholic haze, cocooned in the coffin- sized containers of the Capsule hotels, having missed the last train home.
They were like strangers sharing the apartment. He felt cast adrift, coasting along on his own. It was too hard. He needed her. He was no good on his own and knew he couldn’t function without her. Yoko had always organized everything. He sat for a moment, his head in his hands. Then an idea suddenly struck him, lighting up the dark, despairing corners of his mind. They would go on a little holiday together. When they had first married Yoko had wanted to take a holiday at Mt. Fuji. He had booked a room at the hotel for them both but he was suddenly called in to work, an emergency had arisen. He could not refuse. The company took priority over his family commitments. They did not go and Yoko never mentioned Mt Fuji again.
The sound of a door quietly closing broke into his thoughts. He could hear Yoko moving around the house. He decided to try and prepare her breakfast as a surprise.
Part Three: Yoko
Yoko stepped gingerly out of the shower onto the rubber mat. She was afraid of slipping on the wet tiles and hurting herself, exactly like her friend Mitsouko. While stepping out of the shower Mitsouko had slipped and fallen, cracking her thin skull like an eggshell on the unyielding, wet tiles. Her body lay undiscovered for three days until her husband Yukio arrived home from his business trip and found her lying, cold and stiff on the bathroom floor in a pool of congealed blood. The smell was indescribable, he had confided to Noburo over a few strong cognacs. Mitsouko’s sister-in-law came to clean their apartment but the odour of death still hung about the place. No. She wouldn’t like to die like that. Not completely alone and without anyone to even say a prayer at the Shinto shrine for her.
On the occasion of her fiftieth birthday she had suddenly become aware of her own mortality. She felt had reached a great age. A half century. This should have been the milestone of maturity created by the wealth of her experience. She had always been slim and agile and full of energy. Noburo said that even now she had the face and body of a much younger woman. But with the onset of age she began to feel that her powers of energy and stamina were fading. She was a like a battery that was running down. She was becoming weaker and losing power. Uncontrollable feelings of anxiety and confusion would suddenly overwhelm her. Dr Noguchi told her that she was showing symptoms of the menopause and gave her some pills to mask the symptoms.
They seemed to help for a while but lately she had felt a slow tension building up inside her. Inexplicable fires of anger raged deep inside her and there were days when she felt as though her entire life was coming undone and hanging in threads just like the tapestry that Noburo had given her for her birthday.
She stepped up to the full length mirror and studied her naked body. She frowned at the slim figure reflected there. Her breasts were small but full and with prominent rosy nipples now fully erect after her shower. She sighed and began gently kneading her breasts, feeling for the dreaded lumps but thankfully found nothing. She considered herself luckier than her best friend Mariko. One rainy night Mariko had been driving home through the slick, wet streets of the Shinjuko district, when a dog suddenly ran out in front of her car. She skidded and braked hard, and struck her chest on the steering wheel. Some months later she began to feel sharp pains in her breast. Tests revealed a large lump in her breast which resulted in a partial mastectomy.
This proved to be a disaster for Mariko. She was a proud and attractive woman with a beautiful body. Her husband loved to show her off to his friends. For him, she was the perfect woman. After the operation she became depressed and refused to go out. Her husband was not a patient man. One day he took a mistress. Poor Mariko felt utterly worthless. He came home late one night to find Mariko half-lying on their new cream leather sofa. Her wrists slit open like bloody mouths spewing blood all down their new shiny leather sofa. Yes, she should be grateful she was still intact.
She stood there shivering, dripping water onto the tiles. She put her head on one side to shake the water from her ears, and her black hair swung away from her face. She grimaced at herself in the mirror. Her perfectly even white teeth twinkled between her parted lips. Andrew had complimented her on her teeth.
He came to her desk to correct her written English grammar, as he bent over her, she could smell the soft wool of his sweater. She inhaled his foreign masculine scent. He was a man not of her race and a giant among her people. They had never meant it to happen. When he had discovered her in the empty car park at the back of the Language School looking forlornly at the flat tyre on her car, she had been glad of his help. The rain which had begun as a light drizzle when she had left the school had turned into a heavy downpour.
He had a pump in the boot of his car and had pumped up the tyre.
It was hard work and in spite of his youthful energies, his face was shiny with perspiration.
‘Well, there you are then Yoko. It’s all fixed.’
‘Thank you so much Andrew san’ she murmured shyly and turned to get into the car, but something made her turn round. He was still standing there, watching her. He was smiling. Then she heard herself saying, ’Perhaps you would like some tea? There is very good teahouse near the school. I go…..we go there. My friends and me……I can take you to your apartment.’
Suddenly he threw back his head and laughed loudly, making her jump. ‘Well that’s really nice of you Yoko. I’d love to’.
She knew that he was married with a child. She knew that this was dangerous territory, for both of them. She guessed however, that he wasn’t happy. The other female students noticed that he wasn’t ‘looked after’. Sometimes he came to the classroom with his shirts creased and buttons missing. His eyes looked tired and bloodshot, and sometimes he was unable to disguise the stress with his usual banter. Once, when she was in the car park about to get into her car she saw his wife arrive. She was small, thin and dark. Not English like Andrew. Not pretty. She was very angry and shouted at him. They didn’t see her watching them.
He was the focus of intense lunchtime gossip among her friends but she didn’t take part. She rinsed her mouth and put the toothbrush back in its holder.
It had all started so innocently. Then it was like a raging forest fire between them. Their emotions had taken them both by surprise. Now everything was coming to its logical conclusion.
She could hear Noburo moving around the house. She took a thick, towel and briskly rubbed herself dry, then she folded the towel carefully over the rail. She went towards the bedroom to get dressed but paused as though she had forgotten something. She went back to the bathroom. She checked that she had switched off the shower and refolded the towel with great care over the rail. She gave the towel a last caress, smoothing it with her hands. She held her hands out in front and stared at them curiously as if they didn’t belong to her. They trembled slightly. She went to the washbasin and began to wash her hands vigorously under the tap. The water was very hot and was scalding her hands a dark, angry red but she didn’t seem to notice. She dried her hands roughly then folded the towel over the rail once more patting it gently. Then she walked into her bedroom and began to get dressed. She could hear Noburo making tea in the kitchen. He moved about the house quietly trying not to disturb her.
Noburo had laid the breakfast table with great care. Gleaming porcelain bowls and sparkling silverware bought on a trip to London nestled on a snowy white damask tablecloth bought a souvenir from an Italian holiday. In pride of place stood the large white teapot with the bamboo handle, a present from his parents. Near Yoko’s plate he had placed a jar of English marmalade and her elegant Worcester porcelain teacup. She loved all things English, and even kept some loose-leafed Twinnings breakfast tea in a tin with a picture of Buckingham palace on it.
Yoko took her place at the table like a guest at a wedding feast. He poured tea into her little cup. ‘I thought we could take a little holiday together. We could take a trip up Mt Fuji and then there’s the Akiogahara forest. It’s a very ancient wood. There are many beautiful, rare trees. I’ve always wanted to take a look around there.’
Yoko looked up, ‘The Aokigahara Forest? Isn’t that the place where people go to die?’
‘Yes, I’ve heard the stories, but it is an interesting place. I must say I’m very curious. I should like to see if it’s all true!
‘How morbid’, she shuddered
‘You’re being very negative Yoko’, Noburo murmured. ‘Mt Fuji is a fabulous place and is a truly wonderful sight in the Spring, especially with all the trees in blossom. Besides, Hashimoto has half shares in a very elegant hotel in the area. Most of the rooms have panoramic views of Fuji san and it’s full of Gajin all the year round.’
She scratched absently at the raw, scaly patches on her hands.
‘But what about my English classes?
Mr Andrew is preparing us for the exam. It’s in two weeks time.’
‘That’s no problem. We could leave tomorrow afternoon and return next Saturday. You’d be back in plenty
of time for your exam!’
Yoko gazed out at the terrace now bathed in Spring sunshine. The weeping cherry he’d planted to mark her thirtieth birthday was smothered in a froth of pale pink flowers.
She sighed heavily. She tried one last lame excuse. ‘It’ll be very crowded; it always is at blossom time.’
‘Come on Yoko’, pleaded Noburo. ‘We need a little holiday. We need to spend some time together. Since my retirement I’ve hardly ever seen you. You’re out every day’
She lowered her head guiltily over her bowl. Then she raised her eyes level with his.
‘Noburo, I have great respect and admiration for you. You’ve worked so hard to give me everything but surely you can see that our lives have changed.
He looked at her keenly, ‘What do you mean, ‘Changed’?
‘Well precisely that. Surely you didn’t think I actually liked being left alone in the house day in day out, never seeing anyone, only the shopkeepers. Spending my days cooking and cleaning and preparing your Bento box for your lunch‘
‘Yes, but I thought you………’
‘What? You thought that I would have children to occupy me. But I didn’t, did I?’ her voice trembled, hovering on the edge of tears.
She looked out of the window. An icy crevasse of silence yawned between them filled with the absence of the longing for a child.
‘No!’ She shook her head slightly. ‘Now I have my own friends, hobbies and interests. I have my own life! I feel………..alive!!’
‘What a pretty speech. You use the words ‘respect’ and ‘admiration’ but not the word ‘love’! Noburo’s voice shook with emotion.
He stared at the sink and noticed a tile coming loose from the splash back. If he didn’t replace it they would all come loose and fall off. He felt that Yoko had lifted up the edge of the secure marriage they had together and was pushing her finger under the emotional adhesive, working it loose little by little.
He prised his eyes from the tiles and let them wander over the bookshelves laden with hundreds of books from floor to ceiling. His and hers. His vinyl collection of Western classical music boasted titles such as La Boheme, Aida, Tosca, Bizet’s Carmen. He loved opera. Yoko did not. ‘The voices are all mixed up and discordant’ she complained once. Her choices were more eclectic with many foreign singers and pop groups.
He rested his eyes kindly on Yoko. She was still a very attractive woman. He noticed she seemed thinner, her face was becoming gaunt and pale, yet she was busier and more energetic than ever. Sometimes, she seemed so far away. She was locked in another world. He wanted to break down that barrier and find out what she was thinking.
Yoko studied the bottom of her empty teacup. Then she gave a little sigh. She didn’t want to go into any more protracted explanations so she said
‘Well alright. When I come back from my English class I’ll pack some things. As you pointed out, there’ll be lots of Gagin to practise my English with’
‘That’s settled then. I’ll ring Hashi to reserve us a room.’ He smiled widely at her like a trusting child.
In the distance he could hear the high pitched wine of the Tokyo Express whistling along the tracks way below their house and he echoed the sound by humming an aria from his favourite opera as he began to clear away the breakfast dishes.
Part Three: The Fujiyama Hotel
Yoko was sick with nerves as they pulled up in front of the splendid hotel Fujiyama. She sat on in the car for a moment enjoying the spring sunshine on her face, glad of the anonymous shield of her dark glasses. A few more minutes grace. She marvelled at the sight of Mount Fuji rising grandly above the clouds. It has been a spiritual symbol of Japan since ancient times. It is Japan’s most sacred and holiest of mountains.
She was in awe of its serenity, its symmetry and its icy remoteness. She longed to be a speck on that snow-covered summit. She imagined herself standing on the snowy apex, gasping in the thin air that hurt to breathe. A solitary figure, eyes screwed up against the blinding whiteness and ears deafened by the thundering silence: the freezing wind savagely biting her cheeks. There, on that glittering peak one could experience complete freedom, a oneness with nature and perhaps, happiness of a sort.
Noburo leapt out of the car and took out their suitcases and began to hurry up the marble steps to reception, bumping the suitcases noisily on every other step. He suddenly became aware that she wasn’t behind him. He dumped the cases in front of the revolving doors with a clatter and went down to the car. He put his head inside the window, his face close to hers. Yoko drew back a little, but he didn’t seem to notice
‘What’s the matter? Don’t you like the hotel?’ he asked. Without waiting for her answer he continued.
‘I thought you’d love it. When we first married you talked of nothing else but going on holiday to Mt. Fuji together.’
Yoko turned her head away a little so as not to inhale his strong breath.
‘That was 30 years ago’, she murmured half to herself. Then, managing a weak smile, she got out of the car.
‘You’re right Noburo, it’s a beautiful hotel’. Fighting back the nausea and apprehension she climbed the steps to the glass and marble foyer but she did not permit him to take her arm. She simply could not bear him to touch her. She had asked him to book twin bedded rooms, explaining that she had a painful rash.
While Noburo checked them in at reception Yoko sat stiffly on an elegant cream sofa and amused herself watching the arrival of the guests coming in through the revolving doors. People fluttered inside the glass cubicle like butterflies caught in a jam jar; imprisoned briefly by the heavy, rotating glass doors before they were suddenly spewed out, dizzy and disoriented.
Some had arrived to visit the Cherry Blossom festivals which were just beginning. The hotel was busy with tourists from all over the world. She wondered at all the different languages being spoken. A group of Americans pressed eagerly against the reception counter, all calling out different requests at once to the receptionist.
‘Miss! Miss! I need someone to take our bags up to our room immediately!’
‘Hey miss! Can you tell us where to catch the touring bus tomorrow morning?’
‘Excuse me miss, what time is breakfast?’
‘Er…. miss! My little boy has just been sick on this gentleman’s suitcase. Do you have a cloth?
Honey, there’s no use getting mad! It’s just one too many Hershey bars is all!’
‘Miss’ Kanawa kept calm and unruffled and bore all the mayhem with dignity and good humour. Always smiling gently and giving little respectful bows to everyone. Eventually they fell back, their needs now satisfied only to be replaced with a family of bewildered Spaniards who surged forward.
‘Perdona Senorita!!! They cried in unison.
A tall well -dressed Frenchwoman with some expensive looking luggage came hesitantly forward.
‘Bonjour mademoiselle. Je voudrai un chambre……..’
In the gleaming, brightly lit corridor the bustle of Reception was soon forgotten. Noburo slipped the card into the slot and pushed open the door of their room. Yoko let out a little gasp of surprise. The door opened onto a large, airy room with two enormous picture windows looking out over the forest to the snow-capped Mt Fuji. Bright mid- morning sunlight splashed onto the cream linen sofas with chocolate cushions artfully arranged. The gleaming wooden floors were covered in strategic places with thick beige rugs. A heavy oak coffee table piled with magazines stood between the sofas.
Yoko walked over to the huge picture window and gazed out over the tops of the trees to the lake, shimmering in the sunlight. In the distance she could see Mt Fuji, starkly white against a dazzling blue sky. Shining and omnipotent. A group of pink flowering cherry trees coming into blossom provided a natural arch on the terrace outside the sliding glass doors.
‘Oh Noburo! This is so very lovely!’ she breathed.
‘You like it? I’m so glad Yoko-san’ Noburo murmured. His expression of relief was concealed as he gave a low bow like the bell boy showing off an apartment.
She smiled. She had not expected such splendour, such beauty. She turned to Noburo. ‘This is wonderful. It’s more beautiful than I could have ever imagined’ She wandered into the bedroom and noted the two single beds. Noburo came up behind her and tried to kiss her neck affectionately. She moved aside abruptly.
‘I’m going to try out that shower. The bathroom looks so inviting.’
He tried stifle his disappointment with a broad grin. Noburo, the smiling tiger.
‘Fine, after your shower we could take a turn round the gardens and have tea on the terrace if it’s not too cold.’ he said.
Yoko put her head on one side coyly, her sleek black hair with its single grey streak, fell seductively over one eye ‘Sounds like a good idea’. Then the door closed gently against all further communication. Noburo stood looking at the door for a moment then, with a sigh, he turned to unpacking the suitcase.
To be Continued……….