The Sleeping Man

Published in A Literation Magazine August/October 2014

We found the man hanging from a tree on a Sunday morning, hands by his side, morning sun in his eyes. His feet pointed north then south and then north again as the breeze turned the man in the boughs. My father told me he was asleep.

It would be hard to suggest that it wasn’t that chance encounter with the sleeping man that created in me an intense fascination with suicide. I became obsessed. Not with the idea of doing it myself, not at all, but rather I was taken by the concept of self-murder. How could someone rationalise it, or alternatively, how could someone reach such a point that all sense of self-preservation was inhibited? This was the question that, for me, couldn’t go unanswered. I wasn’t so much interested in the why, but the how — what happened in the psyche to give it such power over natural instinct?

My parents were worried, of course; what parent wouldn’t be? They put me into counselling programs and started home-schooling me. By the time I was sixteen I was on first name terms with more than ten doctors in the Yamanashi prefecture. No one seemed to understand that I didn’t actually want to die, I was just interested in what led others to the point at which they did.

My doctoral thesis concerned the evolution and dilution of Seppuku into modern Japanese culture, it was well-received and finally it seemed that my strange fascination with suicide would pay off. But when I was offered a position in a leading psychological research centre in Nagasaki I was compelled to turn it down, leave my home in Nakano Ward, and head west.

I was never a sociable man. From the point I saw the sleeping man I kept to myself, spending my time reading and studying. I was never uncomfortable by myself for long periods of time. So, the opportunity to become conservation manager of the Aokigahara Forest was not one I could turn down. The job was not as it sounded, I was not responsible for the forest, indeed no one was, the forest could look after itself. Rather, I was responsible for exploring the forest and helping anyone who may have been lost or there to commit suicide.

It sounds like a morbid post, but for a place otherwise known as the “Suicide Forest”, it was an important service. I wasn’t saving people, not really, in general my role was discovering bodies and supervising their retrieval. But if I found anyone I would always talk to them, try and discourage them from what we both knew they were there to do. Sometimes it worked and they would leave and sometimes I would come back the next day and find they had gone through with it anyway. Somehow I managed to remain cold and disconnected about it. Which was an important qualification.

For myself, it was a valuable outlet for my fascination. The information I gathered from the people out there and the many notes I was able to take were excellent; to be that close to suicides again, to feel that residual anguish, it was like a drug to me.

As was my wont, I immediately created a rigid routine that I stuck to hence. I would wake up early in the morning and make my round of the footpaths around Jukai, looking for anything out of the ordinary. People didn’t tend to kill themselves where everybody else could see them, they went further into the forest so I was looking for signs that someone may have wandered deeper in. Then I would take a snack and a drink from my thermos. After that I walked back to one of the many cordoned off paths; paths long out of use that led into the forest proper. It was easy to get lost, compasses don’t work out there, and once in deep it was hard to see a way out. But most people who went any further into the green weren’t interested in coming back out again.

Most of those that didn’t come out hanged themselves, though sometimes they used pills. Hanging is a far from romantic way to die. The bodies normally came down in pieces, in varying stages of decomposition and picked apart by wild animals. I suppose people didn’t think about that when they went up there.

As such there are three kinds of people in the Jukai: the kind that are interested in the scenic vistas of Mount Fuji, the curious hoping to catch a glimpse of the macabre, and those that don’t intend to return. I don’t really fit into any of those groups, so I guess I had a category all of my own.

I found that those unsure about killing themselves would tie ribbons or tape around trees so that, should they change their mind, they could trace their way back. This was sensible, providing you didn’t lose that trail, but more often than not it provided a sure sign that something had happened and a clear path to a body.

Strange though it may be, I liked my job. I liked the solitude of my tiny hut, I liked the simplicity. I could have had a good job in the city, but here I could research at my own leisure. I could collect data as I pleased, write my own reports without deadlines. I could read all I liked and there was no shortage of places to walk. I didn’t even lack for company as a Buddhist monk lived on the Western side of the forest and often he would come by to drink my tea. It was at times an idyllic life, despite the morbidity.

It wasn’t that I liked seeing dead people, I just didn’t hate it. I didn’t feel sick or turn away or react in any way negatively to the bodies I found, however they looked. At that stage, once the life had gone out of them they were just lumps of flesh. If it weren’t for us recovering them, they would have simply returned to the earth as they were supposed to.

I did like to keep the notes, which might have been wrong of me. But I always felt I was doing the families a service; no one wants to know it was their fault all along.

***

My fascination with suicide ended on a cool, misty Sunday morning in autumn. Sitting down on my favourite stump I sipped tea and ate a salmon sandwich. I was on my way to where the trail led further into the forest when the most peculiar feeling came over me.

I was compelled to sit down on the floor where I was. A hiker came by and saw me with my head between my knees and my skin as white as a sheet. I waved him off with an excuse of feeling nauseated and after spending some time with me he wandered away. It was more than that, though, when you live in the forest for as long as I had you begin to tune into its feelings. Something was happening, and that shift was affecting my body, everything was imbalanced.

After an hour or so the feeling passed, I found myself able to stand again and took a few moments to collect myself. Though I was late in my routine and would surely struggle to reach the cabin before dark, I couldn’t shirk my duties because of a little sickness. I had gone through the forest amidst flu, a broken ankle, and, after some of the hardest days, crippling hangovers. And whatever was happening in the forest, I needed to find out.

I didn’t see any new ribbons from the path, so my course was random. I just hiked through the forest, marking trees along the way with chalk as was my custom. I always made sure to take note when I was turned around, and kept a small battery-powered transmitter connected to a beacon in the cabin with me, in case I lost my way and rain washed away the chalk.

The air was cooling and evening approaching, I was about to turn back when I stumbled upon a curious-looking tent. It was prohibited to camp in the forest, and that fact was widely known, so anyone who did — be it for fun or with the intention of killing themselves — often made the best effort to conceal themselves. This tent, however, was bright yellow.

Somehow, that little yellow tent, dainty and child-like, filled me with a dread I had never felt before. There was no smoke or any indication of life, so I naturally assumed the worst. It could be a child with a tent like that, or worse, I thought as I approached in silence — we had found wild men in the forest before, people on the run and the like, people it didn’t do to approach unexpectedly.

So I approached with caution. Yet, to my surprise, I found in place of a course a very much living girl. Only a few years younger than me and dressed in a yellow jacket and boots that matched her tent, she was reading a book by the fading light. When she realised she wasn’t alone she looked up at me but said nothing.

“Uhm, excuse me, miss, b–” I started, crouching down beside her.

“Hello mister!” she said in English.

“You speak English,” it was more of a statement than a question.

“As much as I can, how can I help you?”

I was taken aback. Few people I found in the woods spoke at all, let alone in English. Her chipper nature was so at odds with the mood of the forest that I was still unnerved.

“I’m afraid you’re not supposed to camp out here, miss. It’s dangerous. I know these woods very well, and I would be happy to lead you out to my cabin and find you a taxi,” I tried to sound as tactful as possible, but my heart was thumping a storm. She seemed so calm, and it was always the calm ones that were the biggest worry. When they were really composed they really meant to do it, she was probably just waiting to finish her book and then she would off herself.

“Your cabin,” she said, closing her book and narrowing her eyes at me. “Are you trying to seduce me, mister?”

I felt the blood rush to my cheeks. “Oh no! Miss, my deepest apologies if that was the impression I gave!”

“I am only joking with you,” she laughed. “That was not the impression you gave at all, and it was a very kind offer, but I am quite content here.”

“I’m afraid it’s not really an offer, miss. You aren’t allowed to camp in the forest. There are signs.”

She leaned in close to me with a wicked smile, and I could smell summer on her. “What,” she said. “Those please talk to the police before you kill yourself signs?”

“Not just those, b–”

“God they’re awful!” she interrupted me again. “The guy who wrote them is probably out here somewhere.”

Her smile was intoxicating, and as she closed her book as if she intended to speak to me further. She was not an unattractive girl, it could be said, she had a sweet face and manner, and perfect legs.

“Miss–”

“Kame, please.”

“Tortoise,” I said, unthinking.

She glared at me. “I know full well what it means, I hate it.”

“Miss, you shouldn’t, it suggests you will have a long life.”

“Does it?”

“Yes, the tortoise is the symbol of longevity.”

“Ironic that you found me in this place, then,” again, no hint of misery in her voice.

“Yes, so, longevity in mind, would you please come with me?”

“Oh no,” she said with that disarming smile. “I’m okay here.”

I tried again. “My job is to walk around this forest and make sure people don’t want to, you know… So in that interest, please follow me so neither of us get in trouble.”

“Make sure people don’t want to what?”

“Kill themselves.”

“I don’t want to kill myself, mister!” she said, a little too calm.

“You know, life’s worth it. I could tell you what actually happens to people up here to persuade you, but I’d rather not, no one wants to hear about that.”

A smile was the last thing I expected from her. “You’re kind of cute, did you know that?” she said. “I kind of would like you to tell me what happens to the bodies, though.”

She moved to sit cross-legged and looked expectant, I on the other hand was starting to worry about the dimming light. “Miss Kame, you don’t want to be out here after dark.”

“It’s okay, I like the dark. Tell me what happens to the bodies up here.”

“I’d rather not.”

“Go on, is it gruesome?” — I nodded and she leaned in close to me — “I like gruesome.”

I sighed, offered her some tea from my thermos that she accepted with her now familiar smile, and relented. “Most of the bodies we find here come down in pieces,” I started, hoping to shock her, but it did not and she motioned for me to continue. “Either they’ve been got at by animals, or the heads are severed and laying near the body — if they haven’t been carried off by the same animals. You see, the noose people use to hang themselves acts as a sort of guillotine, as the skin decomposes it just slices right through.”

“Like that string they use on cheese?”

“Yes, like the string they use to cut cheese.” I heard her say wicked under her breath. “That would be a good analogy.”

“I am good at analogies,” she sipped her tea and produced a packet of crackers from her bag. She offered me one but I refused. With a mouth full of crackers she said. “I guess it’s because their necks are broken?”

“That’s right, Miss Kame. Often it is a relief to find the headless bodies, because you know they died quickly. The bodies you find hanging tend not to have their necks broken, they didn’t use enough force so they suffered for a while, it’s sad.”

“Some people don’t want to get old,” she offered.

“Some people don’t know what they want.”

She nodded. “So what else?”

“A lot of bodies that we don’t find for a while have to come down in pieces. It’s a similar thing, the body rots, gets picked at by animals, and when we try to lift the body it just falls apart.”

“Pretty gross,” her smile still hadn’t disappeared.

“It is,” I replied, with a look at my watch. “Now, miss, can I take you out of the forest, before it gets too dark? It’s hard enough to find your way out at the best of times, let alone at night, and there is no tape around these parts.”

“Have you ever stayed in this forest at night?” she asked, ignoring me.

“No, Miss Kame, and I wouldn’t want to.”

“You can call me Kame, it’s okay.”

“No, Kame, I haven’t.”

“The forest really comes alive at night.”

“Is that so?” I replied, uninterested.

“It’s true, it’s something to experience,” she shifted in her position to stretch her legs out and I couldn’t help staring at them. “How long have you been up here?”

“I’ve worked here a total of five years and eighty-six days — eighty-seven now, I suppose.”

“You keep count?”

“I just started and never stopped.”

“How many dead bodies have you seen in that time?”

“I’m not sure,” I said.

“Over a hundred?”

“Most definitely, as conservation manager here I supervise all recoveries — especially as I tend to discover most of them.”

“So over four-hundred?”

“Probably,” my stoic reply.

“I guess that makes you a little desensitised to it?”

I nodded.

“Look mister, I appreciate what you do and that I shouldn’t be here. But I’m not trying to kill myself, I just like to be here at night. I would love to meet a policeman willing to come out here after dark, so I doubt you could eject me against my will. So if you’re worried about it getting dark you can go, I’ll be fine. Otherwise, maybe you should sit down, you’ll give yourself tendonitis squatting like that.”

I could see that she was serious and that trying to persuade her to leave was futile. I should have left her, yet I couldn’t, call it my conscience but something stopped me walking away. “Perhaps,” I ventured. “If we are going to stay here we should start a fire, it will get very cold soon.”

“If you know how, mister. I normally just throw loads of coats and jumpers on to try and keep warm, but a fire would sure be nice.”

“It’s dangerous out here without a fire, you can freeze to death, no matter how many jumpers you have on. The cold can just get in through your legs,” as I said it I realised I was staring at them again.

“That would be a shame, I’ve always been told I have good legs, it would upset a lot of people if I had to cut them off.”

“It really would,” I said. “So we best start a fire.”

I arranged some stones on the ground and threw a pile of dry sticks on top. The evening was dry, so once I set the spark to the wood the fire burned with gusto.

“That’s an impressive fire, mister,” she said, turning her head as if she were sunning herself.

I thanked her and we sat for a while in silence as the darkness set in. I was lost. In the daylight I could have easily found my way back, but once night came on I lost all sense of direction, all that existed was the fire and Kame.

“There are a lot of spirits in the forest,” she said after some time. “Once the sun goes down they all come out to play.”

She saw the fear on my face. “Not scared of corpses that are falling apart but you’re scared of ghosts?”

“Who likes ghosts?”

“They’re harmless, they just walk around. They’re lost, like they were before they died.”

“You seem to know a lot about them.”

“When you come here as often as I do you tend to see things.”

“Why haven’t I seen you before?”

“Perhaps you weren’t looking?” she levelled a sly look at me. “I guess we haunt different places.”

“Funny.”

“I am.”

I stared at the flames for a long time and became aware of voices in the air, as if the wind was speaking to me. The forest was always quiet during the day, the sea of trees creating a kind of blanket to the wind. It gave the place an ethereal quality. But at night the wind found its way in and no matter what there was always a stiff breeze. “They say that a monster lives in the centre of the woods,” I told her. “And that as it sleeps its breath weaves through the trees, so there is always a breeze here even when all else is still.”

“You can hear them, then?” she asked and when I nodded she seemed relieved. “Sometimes I get scared that I’m the only one that can hear the voices, that they’re just in my head.”

“This is the first time,” I said. “But there is a monk that lives here who has told me that he can hear the forest speaking to him on the wind.”

“Does he live on the Western edge?”

“Yes, have you met?”

“He gives me tea sometimes.”

“He is fond of tea,” I replied. “So you come here that often?”

“Every week,” she said. “Have done for years, ever since I moved to Tokyo. I just catch the train up here, hike into the woods, and sit in my little tent. It was scary the first few times, but once I realised that the place was harmless I got to like it. It’s so quiet here, I can actually be alone. That’s why I keep away from the tape, following those you’re bound to find someone.”

I noticed then that the cup she was holding was familiar to me, though I couldn’t place where I had seen it. Looking around the camp I saw a number of other objects I felt I had seen before, an umbrella, a compact mirror. “Do you ever take things from this forest?” I asked.

She seemed taken aback. “Take? No, why?”

“I just feel like I’ve seen some of your things before.”

“And yet you’ve never seen me, that’s kind of rude mister,” she said.

I tried to forget the feeling and leaned a little closer to the fire. From the corner of my eye I could see shadows moving in the darkness and tried to tell myself they were just animals. She leant on my shoulder and put her arm in mine.

“After so many years I still don’t get it,” I said.

“Don’t get what?”

“Why people come here to kill themselves.”

“Maybe they just want to be part of the forest,” she said, and then looked as if she hoped I’d forget what she said. “You can kiss me if you like.”

“I’m sorry?”

“You can kiss me, I don’t mind. You’re cute.”

“Miss, I don’t think that would be proper.”

“Again with calling me miss!” she cried. “Look, we’re up here in this forest, all alone, I feel like some company. And like I said, you’re cute.”

I didn’t know about all that, but I did know she had great legs. The forest unnerved and unmanned me, I couldn’t get over the fear of what was out there, what exactly was whispering to the wind. I had told her the story as if that’s all it was, a story, but you hear it enough times and it turns into legend, then a rumour, then suddenly you find yourself an authority on what haunts the Jukai.

She seemed disappointed when I just started into the fire, but I didn’t want to be caught unawares in this place. It’s like she told me, the forest really comes alive at night.

“What’re you waiting for, mister?” she said, poking me in the arm.

“I don’t think this is the proper place,” was my weak reply.

“Do you really think this forest has always been about suicide? It was here long before lonely businessmen. I bet that a dozen couples have had sex right here, in the exact spot we’re sitting,” she punctuated this with a laugh so loud I could no longer hear what the wind was trying to tell me. “So,” she said again. “Will you kiss me, please? I don’t like to ask twice.”

With her laughter reverberating around the trunks the whole place didn’t seem so frightening, so I did. I kissed her soft and long, and afterwards placed many smaller kisses on her lips, tasting lemon and tea.

“See, that wasn’t so bad, was it?”

We sat again in silence, listening as the wind battled the echoes of the rest of the world. “Do you believe in ghosts?” she asked.

“I never used to. But since moving here, I’ve had to.”

“And why did you come here?”

“When I was very young I saw a man that had hanged himself,” I answered. “I could never get the image of him out of my head, nor what my father told me.”

“What did he say?”

“He told me he was sleeping.”

“A nice delusion,” she sighed. “So you came here, to the home of suicide. So what, are you like, a suicide junkie, you get a kick out of seeing people that have killed themselves?”

“No, no I’m just fascinated with the concept, everything about it. Look, I come from a good family, I did well at school, I graduated top of my class, and I was on the way to a good academic career full of papers and conferences. But once I heard about this job, I knew I had to come here.”

“The forest called you?”

“Yes,” I sighed deeply.

“It does that,” she said, tracing random shapes into the ground with a twig.

“Were you called?”

“A long time ago, but now I just keep coming back.”

“One with the forest?”

“Exactly,” she said, a little too sad.

“Why do you come here, really?” I probed.

She gave me a long stare. “Because it’s the only place I can come sometimes, it’s the only place I can come to just feel everything. People talk about opening their minds, taking things like LSD to give their consciousness a breath of fresh air, but they’re fooling themselves. All you need is this, a thin place, where all at once you’re one with nature, past and present and future. This forest has been here since before all of us, and will go on long after we’re gone.”

I didn’t really understand, but I didn’t tell her that.

I threw some more wood on the fire and we huddled beside it for some time. I started to think about the sleeping man, the image that came to mind more than any other was the way his feet revolved like compass points. Perhaps it was that image that made me fear the forest at night, but here, with Kame, I felt little fear. Within that circle of light nothing could penetrate, and with Kame I felt a kinship of souls called by the forest.

At length she took me by the hand and led me into the tent, leaving the flap open so the fire’s light and heat could reach us. She sighed as I kissed her again, her hands on my chest as I undid her ponytail.

“Top of your class, eh?” she breathed.

“That’s right.”

She sighed again. Taking off her jacket and blouse I noticed thin marks on her wrists but I said nothing and she kissed me again. Afterwards we laid in silence upon the ground, our sweat glistening in the fire. “You’re cute,” she said a final time before falling asleep in my arms.

I stayed awake, watching the fire through the open flap as it slowly died, seeing a thousand different futures in the flames. The surrealism of the situation had not escaped me. Here I was with a nude girl in my arms whom only hours before I had been trying to convince not to kill herself. I smiled, but still the feeling of nostalgia crept over me. Why did I feel such a strong connection to the objects in her camp? It didn’t make any sense to me, nor did anything about the evening. Why would a woman, sitting alone in the woods — especially a forest such as this — sleep with me? And why did I let it happen, rather than escorting her away or leaving her.

Thus far I had not been a compassionate man; normally the thought of leaving someone like Kame wouldn’t have fazed me. Yet, on this occasion I was compelled to stay and make sure nothing happened to her — who knows how many others had died in the time I was talking with her. I felt no guilt, and towards her I was not sure how I felt. Though I didn’t understand it at the time, I felt that I was studying her in some way, as I might have studied one of the corpses in the forest.

As if on cue, the fire died and the first light began to stream over the rise, a murky grey Sunday light that filled the forest like flowing water. She awoke with the morning sun in her eyes and moaned against my shoulder. “Good morning,” she whispered with a smile, brushing her untidy hair away from her face.

I watched as she dressed herself, as she put on her bra and her stockings, slowly applying layers to herself. Somehow everything about her seemed morbid to me, as if I was watching her put layers of skin upon her body, yet no matter how many she put back I could still imagine her skeleton beneath. It was a feeling I was not familiar with. She still had great legs, though.

“What?” she said when she noticed me staring.

“You look different in the light,” I replied. I was being honest. Nothing I saw in her repulsed me, far from it, I found myself deeply attracted to this girl, her skeleton, and her legs.

“Is that good?”

I nodded.

I put on my clothes and helped her pack up her camp. Again I took note of items I felt familiar with and we made idle chit-chat while we worked, smiling and laughing, we were on the same wavelength and we both knew it.

I led her from the forest using the markers left on the trees. It was simple enough, the trail I left was easy to follow in the light. When we reached the footpath she stopped and looked at her watch. “Well, mister, that was an interesting night,” she said. “But I have a train to catch.”

“It was,” I replied. “Can you find your way from here?”

“I can, it’s easy enough.”

“And you’re going to leave the forest?” I asked, one last check.

“I’m not going to kill myself, it’s okay.”

“Good,” I nodded and the moment became awkward.

“I think I’ll see you again, sometime.”

Sometime, the word hung in the air like a promise and she directed a broad smile at me. I extended a hand and said. “It was a real pleasure meeting you, Miss Kame.”

She took my hand and reciprocated the sentiment. With a wave I watched her walk down the trail towards town, and with one more she was gone.

***

The old monk turned up at my door that afternoon with his usual offering of fruits he had collected in the forest and I offered him tea.

“You look awful,” he said with real concern.

“I didn’t sleep last night, I managed to catch a few hours this morning but I’m still catching up,” I replied. “I meant to ask you about it actually, so I’m glad you’re here. I met a girl in the forest last night, Kame Watanabe?”

He raised his eyebrow at me. “Kame, yes, she’s come by for tea a few times. She’s a very insightful girl, I imagine you two got on famously. She wanders here and there when the feeling takes her. Very sweet girl.”

“Yes, sweet. She said she visits the forest often, so why haven’t I met her before?”

“Perhaps you weren’t looking?” he offered, looking away from me as he sipped at his tea.

The exact words she used. “You always seem to be weaving riddles, old man.”

“I’m not sure it’s my place to speak of her, is all. You might not want to hear.”

“Try me.”

“Well, do you not recognise the name?”

“I can’t say that I do.”

His usually welcoming expression became serious. “My dear friend, Kame Watanabe was the reason we met when we did.”

I gave him a blank stare.

“Six years ago, Kame Watanabe was found in the forest, by you; your first find as it happens. It caused quite a stir in Tokyo: disappearance of a pretty college girl, that’s front-page news. Then she’s a suicide; perfect story. Everybody loves a tragic suicide. The morning after you found her you sought me out under the pretence of offering a blessing for her soul. I think, deep down, you were shaken, though you appeared outwardly excited when you spoke to me. I’m surprised you don’t remember.”

I felt old and sick in that moment, and I could feel my shoulders hunching over as I withdrew into myself. “No, no, I do remember,” I said, folding my arms.

I trailed off as I looked over the data in my mind. I remembered it now, I had found the umbrella first, then the mirror, a thermos, and finally, beside the body, a thick notebook. Only the first page had been filled, with a distinctly heartfelt note about her wish to return to the earth and be one with the forest.

I took down the file I kept of such notes and sure enough there she was, the first entry. “She’s dead,” I said almost to myself.

“You’re turning positively white,” the old man smiled.

I felt as if I were about to be sick. “But… the girl, last night… was she a ghost, a spirit?”

The old monk began to laugh. “My dear boy, I can assure you that spirits very much exist in this world, and that the forest is positively howling with them. That any of them would be interested in you, I would highly doubt. This girl, Kame, however, is not one of them.”

“Then I don’t understand.”

He extended his arm. “Sit, please, before you fall over.”

I did as I was told. “I will tell you her story,” he continued. “What I know of it, though I don’t know that it’s my place to do so. Kame, the girl you met last night, was not a happy woman when she first visited the forest. Little more than a child, she felt trapped with her father and her mother was not long gone from the world. School was bad, boys were worse. I don’t mean to belittle her, but to me it all seemed very teenage. She tried before, to slit her wrists I think, but her father found her and the hospital sorted her out. This, I think, only deepened her resentment of him. But she reasoned to come out here, where he couldn’t intervene.

“So, after school she hopped on a train, came to the Jukai, and walked out into the forest. She started her little trail far enough in that no one could find her without looking hard. And then she sat down and started the process. She was young and in reality she didn’t want to die, so she needed to really persuade herself. At least that’s how she put it to me.”

“She can’t have been more than fourteen or fifteen at the time? It takes a brave girl to come all the way out here.”

“I don’t think bravery comes into it, she wanted to die and had neither the insight nor the experience to think it through before she got here.”

“Okay, so what did happen? She clearly didn’t go through with it.”

“No, she didn’t. She sat there all night, and when the sun rose she was still there, just staring up through the canopy at the sky. But it turned out someone else had the same idea a few days before, and they’d really gone through with it. The body wasn’t looking so good, but it was still plainly a girl and Kame thought she recognised her but she didn’t know where from. But she did realise that she couldn’t go through with it herself, she wanted to become one with the forest, yes, but not like that. She just stared at the poor girl’s body and then up and left. Leaving her things there and taking some of the girl’s — a fair trade she called it — and then followed her path out. The same path, I suppose, that led you to the body of the real Kame Watanabe.”

“I’m not sure I understand,” I said, but slowly the reality dawned on me. “She took the girl’s identity?”

“Yes, and doesn’t she wear it well?” the old man’s smile returned. “She’s a very impressive girl. She was able to get by without running into trouble, got away from her old life, and now she has real potential, I’m sure you’ll agree.”

“Impressive,” I said, still in shock. “It’s a lot to take in.”

“Can I offer my thoughts on the matter?”

I nodded.

“I think you two were fated to meet at this time. Kame Watanabe, who started your journey in this forest, has returned to take you away. You’ve been here too long already, perhaps it is time to leave all this death behind?”

He was right. For so long I had lived in a land of the dead, from the first moment I saw the sleeping man I was pulled into it. And Kame was the way out. I had to find her, to see that she was real, that I hadn’t lost my mind in the Jukai.

“Do you know where she is?”

“If she wants to be found, I don’t think she will be too hard to find,” he smiled. “Go. Find her. The Jukai will always be here if you ever need to return.”

I left the next morning, knowing that I would never be able to keep that night with Kame out of my mind if I tried to carry on. The monk was right, she had pulled me back to the land of the living and the forest could no longer sustain me. I gathered up what few valuables I had and left; left to find the spirit of Kame Watanabe.

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