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The Ghosts of Takahiro Ōkyo

by Donald Quist

Runner-up in the 2011 Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize, judged by Gish Jen

Daisuke would find them in varying levels of decomposition, bleeding out into the snow or scattered over hiking trails, half eaten.  Most would be hanging from the trees, the trunks so close and tight that in the perpetual twilight of Mount Fuji’s shadow their limbs looked like strange branches sprouting from the shaggy moss.  They were businessmen or star-crossed lovers, victims of incest and criminals.  They came from all over.  It was not the books that inspired their deaths, Tsurumi’s The Complete Manual of Suicide or Kuroi Jukai by Seichō Matsumoto.  It was because of the yūrei.  Many could not hear them—the sea of trees was as quiet as the depths of an ocean.  But to Daisuke they were clear as his own voice, the forgotten words whispered in final breaths to the forest.  Hundreds of confessions, the secrets kept by the undergrowth, were rooted in the soil and traveled the lengths of Japan like telephone wires—they called out to the lost and led them to Aokigahara.  Daisuke found them, much the same way, following the silent screams to the bodies of men and women who hoped that in death their souls might not be alone.

I

“Is it true?” Takahiro asks.  He has been talking nervously for the last twenty minutes but Daisuke has not been listening.  This is their first walkthrough together and they are less than a kilometer into the forest.  Chief Yamamoto assigns new recruits to Daisuke because none of the others want to go out with him.

“Is what true?” Daisuke asks, grabbing the foam bill of his cap and pulling it lower.  He savors the feel of the plastic mesh rubbing the bristles of his shaved head.  The forest is so dense with trees that there is no wind and in the summer, after hiking on patrol, his hair would mat against his forehead.

“The other forest workers, they call you,” Takahiro lowers his voice as if saying it at a certain volume might make it consequential, “shinigami.” Daisuke does not answer, he grunts in a way that means, yes, switching his gaze from the ground to the canopy.  “How many bodies have you found?”

Of the forty-four corpses retrieved from the woods this year Daisuke has discovered eighteen, the last six on consecutive patrols.

“Many,” he says.

They come to a fork in the trail.  Dividing the path is a large wooden sign that reads, “Think calmly once again about them, your siblings and your children.  Don’t agonize over your problems—please seek counseling.” Daisuke likes this sign.  He wishes that he too could be a means of prevention.  He wants to be one of the policemen patrolling around the forest.  He heard that they sometimes get letters from people they have saved.  But he cannot be an officer because he has hemophilia and a chronic cough.

“Doesn’t it bother you,” Takahiro continues, “that the others call you a god of death?”

“We do not work for the dead,” Daisuke reminds him.  “We work for the living.  Let’s focus on that.”

Takahiro shrugs, smoothes his hair back and replaces his hat onto his head.  He is twenty-six, five years older than Daisuke, but his height and demeanor make him seem younger.  In the forest Daisuke is the elder, a veteran to Aokigahara, and he walks ahead of Takahiro in slow but purposeful strides.  Occasionally, he stops to look up.  Much of the terrain looks the same and due to a magnetic anomaly compasses do not work.  It is easy to get lost, but Daisuke has learned to navigate by the crowns of the trees.  The sun hits the tops of the leaves and he charts the few beams of light breaking through the canopy like stars.  Daisuke is confident he can always find his way back to the station, but he is frightened of being out in the woods after dark.

The path narrows into an incline that forces them to lean forward.  They keep their hands in front of them in case they trip.  It levels out and then Daisuke hears it, a faint creaking.  He turns towards the sound and scans the trees, trying to peer past the line of bark and into the darkness.

“There,” he says to Takahiro, pointing.  “Someone’s out there.”

Takahiro seems reluctant to leave the safety of the trail but follows Daisuke as he heads into the brush.  Just a few yards from the path a man wearing a suit begins to materialize.  His back is facing them and he is looking to the ground.

Keep an eye out for abnormal behavior, the training manual suggests. There are typically three kinds of visitors to Aokigahara: those interested in nature, those looking for a scare, and those with intention of doing themselves harm. Pay attention to what they wear.  Be mindful of people in business attire.  Daisuke grew up in Narusawa, one of the three villages that surround the forest.  It was not abnormal to see taxis dropping off men from the train station in the early hours of the morning.  They would reach into the breast pocket of their wrinkled suit jacket and remove a roll of bills.  After handing it to the driver they would stumble up into the forest, disappearing into the fog.  Months, maybe years, would pass before their bodies were recovered. When he was small, after he came to live with Chief Yamamoto, Daisuke would watch the forest workers carry the body bags into the station.  If it was too late to take the corpse to one of the villages they would drop it onto a bed in the spare room and jan-ken to see who would have to spend the night lying beside a dead person.  Sometimes, if the person guarding the corpse fell asleep or went to the bathroom, Daisuke would sneak into the room and unzip the bag.  Sometimes he would find a man in a suit and run a curious finger along the collar, down to the buttons.  Sometimes he thought he recognized them.  Sometimes he would fall beside them in quiet sobs.

“Hello, sir?” Daisuke calls out.  The man in the suit turns around slowly, his head still trained at the ground.  Daisuke starts to run.  He wants so desperately to save something.

Takahiro yells after him, “Wait, hold on!”

But Daisuke puts more distance between them.  He is a few feet from the man in the suit. He leaps over a fallen tree trunk but the Earth vanishes beneath his feet.  He plummets.  Something ethereal says, “Kiyoshi Ishido.”  There is a wet pop, followed by a heavy crunch that bounces off the walls of his skull. The world is spinning now, leaves and dirt and thick branches in a washing machine.  And then he is airborne again, only for a moment, before slamming onto his back.  Daisuke’s eyes fall shut.  He lets his other senses provide context while he gathers the strength to rise. The soil under him is moist and has the tangy-iron sourness of blood and bile.  Something is dripping on his forehead and he can hear Takahiro shouting out to him from somewhere above. When he finally looks up there is the man in the suit, hanging above him, floating in a cloud of flies.  Another drop falls from the tip of a dress shoe and onto Daisuke, rolling over his naked scalp.  He twists his head slightly, to the left.

Takahiro is at the top of the large hill, vomiting.  He backs away from the drop-off, disappearing for a few minutes.  When he returns he wipes his mouth with the back of his hand.

“He’s dead,” Takahiro shouts down.

“I know,” Daisuke barks.

“Are you okay?”

Daisuke hoists himself onto his elbows, but keeps his eyes focused on the body above him, the swollen corpse with pale blue skin that compliments the pinstripes of its suit.  He rolls onto his stomach and pulls his knees under him.  He knows the impact of the fall will have repercussions, the severities of which he can neither see nor fully imagine.  Rising slowly to his feet he hobbles forward only to collapse back onto the hard wet ground.  He is clutching his right ankle, the toe of his boot is pointing down.  Daisuke sprawls out on his back and reaches for his waist, where his radio would be.  He sits up and searches the area.  A short distance up the hill is his two-way, ripped perfectly in half.

“Takahiro, my ankle is broken and so is my radio.”  Daisuke pauses to estimate the hill. “Call the station.  Tell them we need two stretchers, immediately.”

Takahiro snatches his radio from his belt and presses the big black button.  Something is wrong. The soft white-noise-whoosh like television static is missing. Takahiro says, “Hello,” but all that comes back is silence. Daisuke watches him fiddle with the knobs, frantic.

“The walkie-talkie is dead.”

A minute passes before Daisuke finds the courage to suggest the only solution. “You’re going to have to go back to the station.”

“I can come down there and help you up.”

“You can’t carry me up this hill.”

“We can try and find another way.  We can follow the slope.  It has to lead down to one of the villages, right?”

“Or we might get lost,” Daisuke says.

Takahiro’s legs are visibly shaking but his voice is certain and dutiful.  “I will run back to the path, try the radio again.  If I don’t get anyone I will go back to the station and get help.”

Okay, Daisuke thinks.  He nods to Takahiro who turns to run, vanishing into the trees.

II

Chief Yamamato could have done something other than work in Aokigahara. He was a strong student and a natural athlete.  He could have been a businessman.  But he had watched his father grow thin in suits, giving away pieces of himself as he tried to be what others needed him to. Yamamoto could not drink away the afternoon he had discovered his father’s body, dead at an office desk, clasping a pen, successful and alone, with a sneaky half-grin like he had a secret.

When the time came for him to head his father’s ¥3 billion shoe company, he ran.  He bought a ticket for an overnight bus, caught a train and hailed a taxi to Mt. Fuji, a place that held certain significance in his childhood because his father had always promised to take him but was always too busy to go.  He watched white puffs roll off its snow capped crown and waited to feel the mysticism he had as a boy.  When he tired of its majesty he started walking and discovered a small town at the base of the volcano called Narusawa.  He rented a room at a lodge with the money he had left and applied for jobs in the area.  He accepted the first offer, a position as a forest worker.

The work was easy and kept him fit.  The worst part of the job was combing the forest once a year for bodies, but he approached it with a certain coldness that stemmed from his father having instilled in him—along with a strong skepticism of anything impractical—a will to win.  He was far from superstitious.  He did not believe in ghosts, and he could not change his competitive outlook.  He imagined life as a kind of race against death.  Those men and women he found in the forest were quitters.  They had let death catch up to them and surrendered to its speed.   They were the losers and that made Yamamoto a winner.

Years passed and work in Aokigahara became less and less fulfilling.  Yamamoto was given more responsibilities but never enough to satisfy his ambition or thirst for authority.  He looked for other jobs but finding work in Narusawa or one of the nearby villages was difficult for an outsider, a fact his friend, Takahiro Ōkyo, seemed committed to reminding him.

“Nobody is looking to hire some outsider from Kobe,” Takahiro would say.  “The only reason you found this job is because no one else would want it.”

“You are okay with being a forest worker for the rest of your life?” Yamamoto would ask.

“Why wouldn’t I?  One should aspire to only their highest level of incompetence.”

“You don’t want things?”

“Of course I do.  I want a roof over my head, heat in the winter, a fan in the summer and a cold Sapporo every now and then.  This job affords me those things.”

Eventually, Yamamoto subscribed to Takahiro’s reasoning.  He gave up trying to find another line of work, married a local girl from a nice family, he rose to the title of Deputy and settled into the idea of retiring from Aokigahara with a pension.  He started drinking on patrols with Takahiro, stumbling up and down the trails, debating everything and cursing the spirits hiding amongst the trees.  Then one day they wandered too far into the woods and they saw the true nature of the Aokigahara.  Confronted by a flaw in the laws of his existence, Yamamoto did what he did whenever he was truly afraid, he ran, leaving Takahiro behind to be swallowed by the forest.

Yamamoto went home to his wife, he did not return to the station for a week, hoping that time might correct itself and erase what he had seen.  When people came looking for him, asking about Takahiro, he gave them a myth.  He said that Takahiro had disappeared into the forest, and that was enough.  After a few short months—after Yamamoto’s chief could not spare the money or the man hours to continue the search parties—family, coworkers, the police and curious strangers, all seemed content turning Takahiro into a tale like those they had known all their lives, proof of Aokigahara’s terrible magic.  But Yamamoto never told the story enough times to believe it.  He returned to work in the forest, despite his wife’s protest, hoping that he would find Takahiro waiting to forgive him.

III

Dusk settles around him, a violet hour, turning the humid heat of the forest frigid.  Daisuke is beginning to slip in and out of consciousness.  There is something oozing inside of him and he knows that he will soon be dead.  He is somewhat surprised by his own calm.  Because of his condition he has been close to dying.  The circumstances of those near death experiences were far less dramatic, and though the fear is still real, Daisuke is comforted by the fact that his life will not be ended by falling in the shower or coughing so hard he cracks a rib.  In the last few minutes of sunlight Daisuke finds acceptance, curiosity overshadowing his anxiety about what awaits him.  He believes that at the very least his questions will be answered.

Daisuke plummets into darkness. He cannot tell if his eyes are open or closed.  He listens out for the drips from the body dangling above him, soft taps on the forest floor, but there is only silence, a void as vast and empty as the black.  He hears the branch break and the man in the suit falls with violence that is more than just dead weight. The body lands on top of Daisuke, forcing the air out of his lungs and pinning him to the ground.  He struggles to push the corpse off of him but his arms are noodles slapping against concrete. He tries to kick and wiggle himself out from under the man but it only digs him deeper into the dirt.  There is pressure behind his ears that spreads down the back of his neck and across his shoulders.  He can feel capillaries burst.  The weight is all around him now, crushing him.

Bubbling to the surface of his mind are memories that do not belong to him.  Entire lives worlds away, all of them, sin and suffering.  The floor of the forest turns to water and Daisuke is a small Dutch woman with bones like glass caught in the currents of the North Sea.  Her legs cramp and she is pulled underneath, the dark blue crushing her chest like the beauty of the Kurhaus on the coast of Scheveningen.  The salt water fills her lungs like fire and Daisuke is a young Nigerian boy, burning in a Lagos pipeline explosion. His flesh sags and hardens, and he is a forgotten female civil rights hero freezing to death alone in her rented house without heat just four miles from the statehouse she helped diversify. And suddenly Daisuke is back in Aokigahara.  He is Kiyoshi Ishido, the man in the suit, trudging into the forest, writing a note and tucking it into his breast pocket, pulling off his belt, climbing a tree, fastening the buckle around his neck.  Daisuke is sliding off a thick branch, choking, thrashing, kicking, crying, and then he is still.  As life drools out of him he sees Takahiro, standing on the hill, watching from below, folding his hat in his hands, mouthing something Daisuke knows is important.  Something that looks like, “We are Takahiro Ōkyo.”

IV

On the day my daughter was born I held her in my arms and I realized there was nothing I could offer her.  I was an objective observer.  I copied the behavior of others in an attempt to make my time more bearable.  I thought if I pursued the things that others wanted, did the things that others did, if I worked hard and married young and had a baby, I would eventually feel a part of something.  I never did.  I never felt finished and that sense of being incomplete prevented me from giving.  I had no wisdom to share with her.  No opinions.  No lessons.  I had nothing to share with anybody.  Holding my daughter I discovered that for the people I was supposed to love all I have ever felt was obligation, a vague understanding of right and wrong.  My life was a kind of déjà vu, a perpetual out-of-body experience marked by failed connections and intimate knowledge of places I had never been.  Aokigahara always felt familiar to me.  I had never visited the forest but I knew I had been there.  It called out to me.  Standing in the sea of trees, looking for a place to die, those were the only moments of my existence, the only time everything did not look distant and transparent like a copy of a real life reflected in a window.  I could feel the energy traveling under my feet, reaching up into my veins, and it was the first time I ever felt tied to anything.

- Kiyoshi Ishido

V

Yamamoto received a call from his mother. She had hired a detective to find him, her son who had disappeared the day her husband was found dead in his office.  He wept into the receiver.  Yamamoto had not thought about his mother, or the family he had abandoned.  He had not called or made any other attempt to contact them, to offer his condolences or to ease their fears.  When his mother told him that his youngest sister was unmarried and pregnant the weight of his betrayal seemed to fall down on him all at once.  Yamamoto offered to take the baby because his body had failed to give his wife children, and because he thought by doing so he might atone for his absence.

The boy was born.  Yamamoto traveled back to Kobe. His brother and mother made a point not to meet him at the hospital.  Even his sister, pale and weak from birthing a bastard child, had a faint impression of disgust under her sleepy grin.  Her eyes seemed sorrowful as she surrendered her baby over to her coward of a brother.  The boy went four days without a name until Yamamoto and his wife settled on Daisuke Matsuo, a name that would allow them to be open about his adoption and hide the identity of his real mother.

Daisuke was not a happy child and from an early age he had a peculiar fascination with death.  Yamamoto was unable to recognize that something was odd about the boy because he too was obsessed with death.  Whenever his wife voiced her concerns, the boy has no friends, he says he hears people talking even when no one is around, he suffers from night terrors, he draws nothing but black birds, Yamamoto dismissed her. “Daisuke will find his own way,” he would say. He was more concerned with the boy’s poor physical health, a persistent cough and a medical condition that often caused him to bleed into his joints if he ran too fast.  Yamamoto had hoped for a son with whom he could share his love of baseball and sports, but the boy did not have the ability or the constitution.

When Daisuke first asked to come with him to the station on one of his days off from elementary school, Yamamoto was more than happy to share his work with his son. He thought it was an indication of the boy’s character, a sign of his initiative.  However, Daisuke showed more interest in the forest than scheduling patrols or making visitor brochures.  He asked a lot of strange questions.

“Do you ever go out into the woods at night?”

“No.  I’ve made a habit of making sure my men and I are back in the station by dusk.”

“Is it true you find the bodies of people who kill themselves?”

“Sometimes, yes.”

“Why do you think they do it?”

“I don’t know.”

“I think they do it because they are lonely.”

“Maybe so.”

Yamamoto’s seniority, and his appearance as a dedicated family man, made him the clear choice to replace the chief in retirement.  His promotion meant more hours at the station and Daisuke dedicated more of his time to aiding his adoptive father, even volunteering to accompany him on overnight stays.  By the time he was sixteen, Daisuke was a regular face among the men.  Every afternoon he could be found studying forest maps, filing incident reports or going on short patrols with Yamamoto.

“I want to work with you in the forest,” Daisuke would say.

Yamamoto’s reply was always the same. “Finish secondary school. Go to university and then if you still want to work with me in Aokigahara you can.”

After graduating with a degree in physics, Daisuke returned to work at the station.  Yamamoto, though a little apprehensive, kept his promise and hired his son.  Yamamoto’s wife was concerned that working in the forest would feed into the boy’s obsessions and make it harder for him to be normal.  She tried to encourage him to use his degree, to leave the village and Aokigahara.  At dinner she would share gossip about interesting things happening in nearby cities.  At breakfast she would read aloud from a newspaper, interjecting a job advertisement between every story.

It was not long after Daisuke started that other forest workers started coming to Yamamoto with complaints, he says he hears voices, he says he would rather work alone, he is bad-tempered and rude. “Daisuke will find his way,” Yamamoto would say.

When Daisuke found his first dead body everyone considered it a new recruit’s bad luck.  Recovering a corpse was a gruesome affair that involved hiking back to the station with a decomposing body strapped to a stretcher.  It was difficult, physically and mentally.  By the time Daisuke found his fourth, suspicions that he was looking for bodies started traveling around the station.  By the sixth, Daisuke had earned the nickname shinigami, a death god.  It was getting harder for Yamamoto to ignore the fact that something was wrong.  No one wanted to work with his son.  The stories coming back to his office had the same key details, Daisuke’s neck twists, his eyes gloss over, he becomes unresponsive, he runs off into the woods and there is a body.  What scared Yamamoto most was what his men refused to tell him.  He had overheard them talking one night in the barracks about Daisuke and how, while running to a corpse, he would often scream a name.  Sometimes those names matched some identification they would find on the body.

It continued.  Daisuke started finding bodies more frequently.  He shaved his head and the effect was otherworldly.  With his long, skinny, limbs and big eyes he looked like an alien.  He stopped talking to his mother and then he stopped talking to everyone.  Yamamoto would not confront Daisuke or comment on his behavior because he was not prepared to find that he was partly responsible for his condition.

When Daisuke hobbled into the station, one of his feet turned completely around, pointing back the way he came, his clothes soaked through with blood and sweat, dragging a body by the neck with an Italian leather belt, screaming a hundred names, one of them a forest worker who died over twenty years ago, it was the first time Yamamoto had been genuinely afraid since he had last seen Takahiro.

In that moment, watching Daisuke’s wild eyes try to escape his head, two of Yamamoto’s worst fears were realized.  The first, that he was mentally ill and could somehow pass his sickness on to Daisuke, and the second, that what he had seen in the forest all those years ago was real and Daisuke had seen it too.  Worse, he knew it was his fault. He had been unfair, raising him so close to the forest—a child has no place around so much death, his wife had told him that.  She was scared that the lonely yūrei might follow him home.

As he watched Daisuke collapse onto the floor, one hand still clutching the belt wrapped around the neck of the body like a leash, and in the other hand, crushed into his fist, a single sheet of bloodstained paper, most likely a suicide note, Yamamoto knew he had failed him.  When he heard Daisuke shout the name Takahiro Ōkyo, Yamamoto knew it was his fault for running away, for giving up his search so that the weight of his redemption fell upon his son, for coming to Aokigahara in the first place, for refusing to leave just because he had stayed so long, for not knowing who he was if he was not Chief Yamamoto. 

VI

Daisuke wakes to the smell of antiseptic and sterilized linoleum.  Behind the buzz of fluorescent lights he can make out the sound of the universe expanding.  He is in a hospital bed and his right foot is missing. Chief Yamamoto stands above him, looking stern and impatient. Daisuke smiles weakly, his body heavy with the weight of his new consciousness.  He understands things now, the thin line between superstition and science, reincarnation, large concepts with many syllables, time dilation and the relativity of simultaneity.  No moment is absolute and energy can neither be created nor destroyed.  He was, is, and will be Takahiro Ōkyo and Daisuke Matsuo and Kiyoshi Ishido and over half a dozen other people throughout space and time.

Chief Yamamoto clears his throat. “What happened?”

Daisuke knows what happened. He has seen the mechanisms of God.

“I went out into the forest,” Daisuke says.

“You were not scheduled to be on patrol.”

“I know that now.”

“Why did you go out alone?

Daisuke sighs as if he were asked to explain something simple. “I was lured out into the forest by Takahiro Ōkyo.”

Chief Yamamoto eyes him curiously.  He buries his nose in the palms of his paper hands, breathes deeply and rubs his face.  “Takahiro died over twenty years ago.  How do you know that name?  You never met him.”

Staring at the end of the bed, at the void across from the toes pointing up through the linens, Daisuke asks, “Why do you make one of the men in the station sleep beside the bodies you find in the forest?”

Chief Yamamoto fails to hide his surprise. His mouth hangs open while he searches for a context.

“Why are you asking?”

“You do not believe in yūrei.”

“No, but my men do.  I don’t need them worrying about dead people walking through the barracks or screaming through the night, so someone has to lay with the corpses.”

“Their fears are no less valid than yours.  They all stem from how little we understand death.  Whether it is spirits or becoming our father, it all leads back to death.”

“I did not say…”

“That is what you are afraid of, isn’t it, that if you become like your father you might have to die too?”

Chief Yamamoto tries to scoff but he is choked by his own fear. He manages to summon a tone of condescension he reserves for new recruits to the forest station. “You seem so certain.”

“Yes, because you told Takahiro and he told me.”

“Takahiro is dead.”  Beads of sweat are running down Chief Yamamoto’s temples now.

Daisuke nods, knowingly.  “And still I met him.  Even though you left him writhing in the dirt with a broken spine, I know him.” Chief Yamamoto stands pencil straight, his eyes darting from side to side, scanning over something invisible.  Daisuke imagines it is a list of possible scenarios—Takahiro’s name was used in passing or written out on old employment documents.  “Your father passed naturally and he met death unafraid,” Daisuke says. “There was nothing natural about Takahiro’s death.  He smashed his head with a rock, to escape the pain.  He never got to understand and accept it.  He knew death only as an alternative to suffering.”

Chief Yamamoto shakes his head. “You could not know that…this would have happened before you were born.”

“I wasn’t born yet, but a part of me was there.”

“That is impossible.”

But Daisuke knows Chief Yamamoto can feel something shift in the room, reality bending the rules around them, the world reshaping into a place where the things Daisuke suggest are possible.  “I went back for him.  I kept looking. I wanted to give him a proper funeral. I at least wanted to put his soul to rest.”

But there is no absolute state of rest. A man kills himself. He is punished. His soul is divided, twenty-six cuts for every year of his life, and those pieces of himself take on entirely new lives, lives spent trying to remedy that division, to fill that void.

“I could not find him,” Chief Yamamoto says.  His eyes gloss over with regret but his voice is steady with truth.  “I never stopped looking.”

But time and the distribution of energy are relative.  More than a dozen people, sharing the same soul, each carrying an internal clock of identical design and function, moving in motion relative to each other and situated differently in regard to varying gravitational masses, will always view those other clocks as wrong. The death of Takahiro Ōkyo is simultaneous with Daisuke’s conception but it occurs later in the lives of Sarah Bal and Reginald Halpert, and precedes the birth of Adekunle Ogunleye and Becca Rubinstein.  They are not parallel worlds, just events occurring in different order all dependent on the motion of the observer.

“What did you see in those woods that day?” Daisuke asks.  “What made you so afraid?”

“We were on patrol in the forest.” Chief Yamamoto swallows hard.  He fights to finish, as if by getting it out he might absolve himself. “We were drinking rice wine out of our canteens.  We had left the hiking trails for some reason.  I think Takahiro said he had found a short cut, but he didn’t. We got lost.  We thought as long as we followed the slopes down we would find our way out. When we saw the end of the trees we thought we had made it to one of the villages, but it was a caldera, the hills of Aokigahara rolling down into a smooth basin of volcanic rock, like a navel.  And suddenly the ground started shaking.  It was so violent, so close, right under our feet.  I thought Fuji was erupting, but it wasn’t.  The Earth opened up right in front of us and something big and dark flew out.  We started running back into the forest.  I could hear Takahiro’s feet pounding behind me and behind him something heavy, ripping through the trees.  Then he screamed and I could not hear his feet any more.  I kept running. I was too scared to turn around. When I finally looked over my shoulder I saw him, folded in half, crushed in the talons of a giant black crane.”

“You saw death,” Daisuke says, grinning like he’s proven something no one knew to be true.

Chief Yamamoto moves closer to the bed, his brow falls and wrinkles from his new comprehension. He leans in until Daisuke can feel his breath and his anger.  “What are you?”

Daisuke searches Chief Yamamoto’s tiny pupils for a sign of fear but is comforted to see none, only a reflection of himself propped up in the hospital bed.  There was a time when they would have been too afraid to look into the darkness and have it stare back at them.  They are beyond that now—they’ve moved past it, together.  Daisuke closes his eyes.  He listens to the ticking of his heart and imagines the churning of cosmic cogs pushing him into another second.


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Read The Speed of Sound by Elizabeth Gonzalez, the 2011 Howard Frank Mosher Prize winner

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Cathryn May 25, 2013 at 9:39 pm

Quist has written a thriller of a short story focused on the current Japanese culture of working oneself to death, either by exhaustion or suicide. But it is so much more than social commentary. Quist’s characters realize, too late, the power of mental illness, heightened perception, parallel universes…have I missed anything? This story pulled me in immediately in a way the winning story did not, and I can only assume Quist placed second based on the initial confusion over two very different characters having the same name, forcing the not-so-focused reader to go back and reread the first few paragraphs to straighten this slip out. Aside from that, this is a fantastic story–a real winner!

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