Short Story: Drowning in the Sea of Trees

The following is a complete short story taken from Zoe Drake’s forthcoming collection, Dark Lanterns.

“The Japanese are finished!” Takashi Hino yelled at me, stepping on the gas to speed the car down the Yamanashi highway. He took one hand off the steering wheel and shook a fist at the pylons, the rice fields, the lonely farmhouses rolling by. “The way the population’s declining, a hundred years from now there’ll be just a few thousand oyaji rice farmers stuck in a radioactive wasteland wondering what happened to their Rising Sun. And good riddance.”

I’d gotten used to Hino’s rants over the last two weeks, and in my vulnerable position in the passenger seat I resigned myself to making toadying comments. I tried to ignore the horseracing results blaring out of the car radio, and concentrated on the task ahead of me.

Takashi Hino was one of the lieutenants of the Shibuya Sumiyoshi-kai; not a Godfather yet, but a fairly big player in the west Tokyo Yakuza. He’d made his mark coordinating dating scams and fake weddings for Thai prostitutes in his native Toyama prefecture. He’d moved onto bigger things after coming to Tokyo, like running a handful of backstreet loan companies, but he often talked about the Thai and the Chinese girls he’d ‘broken in’. Never forget where you’re from, he often said. I’d been working for Hino for the last two weeks collecting money from Soapland massage parlors – but today, I was out with Hino for the first time, for my ‘initiation’.

Hino slipped another Seven Stars cigarette from the packet, and I hurriedly moved to light it for him. “There it is,” he said, gesturing to the left. “Mount Fuji.”

    I peered at the misty pyramid shape of dark blue and brown against the skyline. “It doesn’t look that big when you get up close,” I said.

    Bam! Sparks exploded as the knuckles of his left hand connected with my right cheek. I rolled with the blow, then turned my head, stared at his reddening face.

    “Well then look at it properly, you son of a bitch,” he shouted, “Show some respect! That’s the most important site in the whole of Japan. That’s our spirit, our pride! You see the snow on the top? But not much on the sides, there, huh, where it’s all rocky and black? I saw something on the TV that said there’s gonna be another eruption soon. The snow’s melting quicker because the volcano’s warming up and sometime in the future it’s going to blow. Man, I can’t wait to see that! Fuji blows its top, and a great cloud of volcanic ash fills the sky and dumps its load on Tokyo. That’ll teach ‘em! The Roppongi Hills megamall is gonna look like another Pompeii. A hundred years from now some archeologists are gonna dig through the ash and find the plaster cast of some office lady with her body curled around her Louis Vuitton bag to try to protect it, and they’ll find the bones of a little Chihuahua inside the bag with one of those stupid pink ribbons around the dog’s neck, and they’ll think, who the fuck were these people?”

Hold it together, I thought. Keep calm…

“So what about you, boy?” he asked, after he’d got bored with ranting. “They told me you want into the gang full-time. So what’s special about you, Naoto?”

My story. I looked ahead at the road, recalling the details that the real Naoto Iwasaki had unwillingly given to me.

    “Well, you know … thrown out of junior high school for pulling a knife on a teacher. Mum died when I was little, Dad was a taxi driver who hit the bottle. One night Dad came back from work, whacked some cash on the table and said, ‘I’m too tired for this. Here’s half of my savings, pack your bags and get out.’ After that I hung out in Shibuya, sleeping in Internet cafes, until I hooked up with some of your scoutmen who told me the score.”

    “Yeah, yeah. I heard it all before. There’s plenty where you come from. Well don’t worry kid, do what you’re told and you could make a lot of cash. And speaking of cash, here it is . . . our stop. The sea of trees.”

I followed his gesture, and looked ahead through the windscreen to the thick rolling cloud of green coming up on the left. Aokigahara Jukai.

About fifteen hundred years ago, Mount Fuji erupted, and as time went by, a forest grew over the lava and other unknown matter that had emerged from beneath the earth. It grew into thirty square kilometers of ancient woodland called the ‘sea of trees’, because from half way up Mount Fuji it really does look like an ocean. Dense, dark, and forbidding.

It is also the most notorious suicide spot of the entire country.

    “Every year around autumn time, the cops do a sweep of parts of the forest,” Hino explained. “They find at least a hundred bodies. I saw a show on TV that said not all the people who die here are suicides. Some of them are hikers who get lost.”

    I tried to conceal my smile and asked, “Who’d want to go hiking in a place like this?”

    “You got me, kid. Anyway, the show brought on one of those rent-a-scientists who said there was something weird about the magnetic field around here. GPS devices don’t work. Compass needles don’t work. This guy actually said,” the gangster laughed at the wrong moment and began to cough on his own cigarette smoke, “that some University did an aerial survey, and they couldn’t even figure out the size of the place. They said the forest was a few meters bigger than it was five years ago.”

    I turned my head away so he couldn’t see my face. “That’s just crazy,” I said.

    We pulled over on the side of the road. With the engine and the radio off, we were suddenly plunged into mournful silence. We got out of the car. The tang of wood smoke hung upon the chill December air. Behind us lay squares of rice paddies and distant farms beneath the cold sunshine, and ahead of us stood a dark tangle of trees that cast everything into shadow.

    “It’s half an hour drive to the nearest town,” Hino said. “Well, you can’t really call it a town. Not much bigger than a village, and half of the buildings are empty and falling down. That’s the countryside for you, kid. The karaoke boxes are full of sentimental songs about the old home town, but the bastards can’t wait to get out and move to Tokyo.”

    We wore the uniforms of the local volunteer fire service, and had fake passes stamped with the Fujigoko Fire Department insignia. We also had color-coded plastic tapes to attach to the trees, not only to provide us with a cover story, but also so we could find our way back.

A gloomy screen of oak, elm, paulownia and chinkapin stood ahead of us. Hino hesitated a little, but then shrugged, pulled out another Seven Stars that I lit for him, and then pushed me forward. We walked under the canopy of leaves onto the public hiking path, and out of the light of day.

“Boss, there’s an old riddle that asks – if a tree falls in the middle of a forest, and there’s nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound,” I said.

Hino blew out smoke and gave me an angry look. “So?”

“So I was thinking, if a salaryman kills himself in these woods and there’s nobody around to hear him, does he really make a sound?”

“Does anybody give a shit?”

We came to a rope stretched across the trees, with a sign that said NO PUBLIC ENTRANCE BEYOND THIS POINT – IT IS EASY TO GET LOST.

There was an even bigger sign above it that said this:

YOUR LIFE IS A PRECIOUS GIFT FROM YOUR PARENTS.

IF YOU ARE CONSIDERING SUICIDE, PLEASE TURN BACK.

DON’T KEEP IT TO YOURSELF: TALK TO SOMEONE.

Hino flicked his cigarette butt at the sign and laughed. We looked around; in the vague landscape of grey, brown and green, we were the only human figures. We climbed over the rope and started trekking, attaching the tape firmly to the trees as we went.

    As we walked in further, the trunks seemed to huddle closer and closer together, and the quality of the light turned thick and gloomy. We soon came across debris littered sporadically across the leaf mulch; plastic water bottles, empty lunch boxes and disposable wooden chopsticks, rotting manga, crushed cans of coffee.

    “Look out for any shoes lying near a tree,” Hino told me. “Before they hang themselves, they take off their shoes and line them up neatly under the tree. When you do find a body, remember you’re looking for cash, watches and jewelry. Even commuter train passes will do, if it’s not out of date. Don’t bother with the credit cards or driver’s licenses.”

    “I heard that someone came down here and found a body with almost a hundred thousand yen in his suit pocket,” I said. “And after that, he found about seventy thousand on another.”

    “With your luck, we’ll find a suicide who decided to have a little camp fire and burn it all before he topped himself,” he moaned with a curse.

    “Boss, have you ever been down here before?”

“Nope. The Ueno branch picks up homeless guys and brings them down here to search for stuff we can use. I don’t have anything to do with that, though – today’s just my turn on the rota to take the newbie for a walk.”

“Sorry, boss.”

“Shut up and keep looking.”

    “Boss,” I said a while later, “have you ever heard of the Jinmenju?”

    “Nope.”

    “It’s an old story,” I told him with a sly glow of pleasure, “about ghostly trees around here called the Jinmenju. People say they grow fruit on their branches – fruit that have human faces on them. Every time someone kills themselves in the forest, the trees steal their soul. In the next season, the dead person’s face starts growing on one of the fruit.”

    “You cut that out!” he snarled, turning around and aiming a slap at my face, which I flinched away from. “I don’t want to hear any crap, okay? Just think of the money and keep your eyes open.”

    We trekked on into the desolate, dark green labyrinth. It was getting colder, and the silence was thick and oppressive, broken only by the rasping calls of a few distant crows. There were other tapes strung through the forest, left behind by police patrols and volunteer searchers, looking like the threads of some vast, luminescent cobweb. Some of them may also have been left by individuals who hadn’t fully made up their minds about suicide, and wanted to leave a path back to the world they knew.

    We walked past several blue tarpaulin tents that had collapsed to the ground, containing rotting sleeping bags with no owners inside. We found shoes – four pairs of them, two adults, two children, covered with mould and left on the gnarled roots of an elm. But no bodies, until …

“Wait,” Hino said finally. “Look up ahead. I think we’ve got one.”

In the boughs of a tree I saw something. Blue denim jacket, jeans, like clothes on a shop window mannequin. As I got closer, I realized it was a male figure, suspended in mid-air by the rope around his neck, unmoving in the cold, still air. His torso rested against the branch that he must have climbed upon to fix the noose. Sure enough, beneath him, lined up neatly, was a pair of hiking boots. Just like someone taking off their shoes when they enter a friend’s house.

I stared at the man’s face. Japan’s winters are cold and dry, and it looked like he’d been mummified. Yellow, parched skin was tight over his cheekbones. His black, shriveled tongue protruded from his lipless mouth and his eyes were dark hollows of shadow. The crows had been at them.

“Jackpot,” Hino muttered.

We both took out allergy-masks from our jacket pockets and slipped them over our noses and mouths. A heap of possessions lay at the base of the tree, and Hino put on a pair of white gloves and began to go through them. He opened a briefcase full of documents that he tossed onto the leafy ground. He found an envelope full of photographs of children in colorful kimonos and elementary school uniforms, and threw them into the bushes with a curse.

    “Okay, time for you to show me what you’re made of, kid.”

    I trod over the crackling leaf mulch to the tree holding the body, stood on a clump of roots, and reached up to the jacket with white-gloved hands. I tried to ignore the exotic smell of decayed flesh and dried excrement that seeped through the mask. I pulled the jacket open and the whole of the man’s body twitched, like a marionette on a string.

    “Get on with it,” Hino hissed. ”The goddamn thing’s not going to attack you!”

    I gingerly reached into the inside jacket pocket. There was a wallet still inside; two or three gentle tugs and out it came, dislodging nameless bits of filth that dropped onto the shirt.

    It was almost over. I had to keep myself together, my tender Iwasaki identity, for just a little longer. The trap was ready to close.

    “The wallet,” I said, handing it to him.

    “Appreciated.” He nodded in satisfaction and took off the mask, and so did I. Then I stared past him, my eyes widening. “Boss,” I said, “There’s something on that tree over there . . .”

    “I told you, don’t give me any crap!”

    “I know, but . . . isn’t that a face?”

    Hino swore at me, but he still turned around to look.

That’s when I got him.

    With a couple of strides I closed the distance between us and put both hands over his face. It was such a relief to let go, to release the hyphae within me, the thousands of fibrous threads and the millions of spores they carried. They flooded out of the pores of my hands, enveloping his face, burrowing into his mouth, his nose, pouring through the sockets and filling up the jelly of his eyes. He choked for a few seconds and then was quiet, his arms slumping to his sides, his body twitching and jerking in brief, random spasms. The threads shot down his throat and into his guts, eating their way outward into his body cavities, beginning to turn his tissues into sugar.

    I released my grip and leaned him against a tree. His face was as slack as a rubber mask. The outside of his lips looked white and furry, but that would soon fade. It was important to keep his outer shape, his toughened skin, so to everyone else he would still look like Takashi Hino.

I released the last hold on the adopted form of Naoto Iwasaki and sank back into the ground, to join with the rest of me. Another part of my consciousness now lived within Hino, and would be carried inside him when he walked out of the forest and returned to Tokyo. I would think his thoughts and look through his eyes as he selected another specimen to bring here to Aokigahara.

Because some of the people who go into Aokigahara don’t die.

Some of them come back – or to be more accurate, some of them are released. Released by the forest to walk the land, to search the country, looking for food, because the sea of trees is always hungry. The sea of trees needs food to live, to grow, and it will not stop growing until the entire country is one huge forest, dark, silent, and each tree will have a pair of shoes lined up neatly beneath it.

    And to paraphrase what I said earlier, if someone kills themselves in the middle of the forest and there’s nobody around to hear them, do they make a sound?

    One day. One day you’ll find out. And on that day, I’ll be at your side, to guide you into the trees.

Do you dare read more from Zoe Drake, the Mistress of Menace? 

Then click here for … The Mists of Osorezan! 

 

About J P Catton

Speculative storytelling and skewed fiction: the blog and website of author John Paul Catton.
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