A Grey String or a Yellow Rope

By: Gavriel Brown

Unwept, unfriended, without marriage-song, I am led forth in my sorrow on this journey that can be delayed no more.

-Antigone by Socrates

In the final moments before fleeing Tokyo he forgot to bring string, though it did not occur to him that the ash-colored cord leading off from the path in front of him belonged to another person. The forest was crisscrossed with these threads that led the lost back to the living, or led the living to the final resting place of the lost. He noticed the charcoal twine’s first loop around a hemlock and turned towards it. He paused to listen to the silence.

Still holding his provisions, he stepped off the tightly-packed dirt and onto the supple moss. Aokigahara forest was dark now. The tops of the ancient trees had stolen most of the afternoon light. The forest—also known as, Jukai, the Sea of Trees—lay uneven, as if the tall trees had sprouted from an ocean, whose squalls produced valleys and crags. Every few feet lay boulders of ossified volcanic slag, a hint of the forest’s foundation, ruminants of the Mt. Fuji’s last eruption.

Ninety minutes from Tokyo, this forest seemed like an ideal escape from the cycle of shattering estrangement, from the chat-rooms and Internet cafes. One train, two busses and a box of pills: he knew getting here was the easiest part.

An internal battle always precedes the act. He knew that—planned for that—stuffing a simple fleece blanket, three pears and the pills in a bag slung over his shoulder. That was why the men and women who came to wrestle with the Yurei unraveled spools of thread; sometimes the dejected spirits would win, but sometimes the Yurei would lose, and the men and women would follow the string across the otherwise unnavigable forest, up the rocky ridges, across the dunes of moss, down the valleys, back to the dirt paths, and back to their towns.

He followed the grey string as it led him across a spongy bed of pine needles, and then turned sharply up a steep bluff. The roots of the trees sprung from the steep ground over and onto each other, clutching the rocks like spindly fingers grasping for a hold above a pile of limbs. He swiftly climbed up the notch. Sitting on a fallen tree to catch his breath, he turned back. He could barely see the faint line of string as it wound its way back to the path, now far out of sight.

He forced himself back onto his feet. The sun now cast a scarlet hue over the forest. Blotches of orange danced across the green forest floor. He lifted the string off the forest floor and encircled it with his thumb and index finger, feeling the twist of cotton fiber along his skin. He felt a small patch of his skin heat up as his fingers chaffed along the cord on the long stretches between the tress, reminding him of the burn he felt on his thumb after long spells on his computer. Three minutes later, the rope wrapped itself around a thin fir and ended.

He looked up from the tree: a sea of trees. But through the corner of his eye he saw a patch of blue and walked closer. In the distance below, a woman was spreading out a tarp across a patch of moss. His skin prickled under his shirt and his heart began beating in his ears. He froze, hoping he could turn away to his own patch of jungle—from the world.  As she lifted the tarp again, their eyes met. Silence.

“I am not afraid,” she said, her voice cracking, just loud enough for him to hear across the expanse of forest. “Do not worry about me. I will be fine.”

“Oh no, I am not—no, I am not one of the people on patrol,” he stammered and shouted slightly. He was surprised that the forest made no eco, feeling as though he was in a small bedroom, the moss forming a mattress under his feet. Afraid to make conversation in present circumstances, he hesitated. After a moment of thought, he began walking towards her and said, “I am, I am here for the same reason you are.”

“Waiting for the perfect time?”

“No, waiting to lose the final battle,” he said, lifting his shoulders as he walked closer.

“Rope or pills,” she asked.

“Pills,” he said, shaking his backpack to rattle the bottle.

“That’s the kind of death that scares me. The slow shadow of death, eating away the last moments of life, sapping your strength. You die because of exhaustion, I imagine.” she said as the corner of her mouth quivered into a smirk.

“So I guess it’s rope for you?”

“I think. No chance for regret. Unless, that is, you convince me otherwise,” she said.

“I’m not sure I have enough pills to share.”

“Just as well.”

He stepped across the pine needles, treading carefully above the rocks.

“You couldn’t bring your own guide string, you had to use mine?” she said, pointing in the fir where she wound up the final length of grey thread.

“Ya, sorry. I forgot,” he shrugged.

“So what’s in the bag?”

“A blanket, some water, and some fruit—and those pills.”

“I’ll take some fruit. You keep the pills,” she said, pointing to his knapsack.

He unzipped his bag and removed two pears. He peeled off the sticker, walked closer to the tarp where she was now sitting, and rested across from her on a fallen trunk.

“You aren’t going to wash them? Pesticides can kill you,” she said catching the pear he had thrown to her. He eyed her and they shared laugh. Each bit into the fruit, silently wondering if its sweet flesh would be their last.

Now that he had come closer to her, he could recognize her petite features. She was probably in her late twenties, with short purple hair, small lips, and wide cheeks. She was striking, and, despite her inflamed eyes and disheveled look, resembled the women of the red-light Roppongi district. Over a rose-colored t-shirt she wore a plain silver sweatshirt and on top of that, an unassuming black parka. Beside her on the tarp sat an empty backpack and a yellow nylon cord wrapped neatly in a figure eight.

“Really? Yellow?” he asked, “You couldn’t find a more feminine color?”

She smiled. “Sorry. Next time I’ll color-coordinate.”

They sat and ate silently, letting the forest shroud them in stillness. Five minutes passed. They avoided eye contact, and instead stared blankly ahead, watching as the forest slowly dimmed.

“I should get go—“

“No. Stay,” she said.

He was relieved.

“I guess I’ve been waiting so long for something to go right and it never did,” she said forwardly.

“Waiting for the perfect love?”

“No. Even I know perfect love is a grand delusion. I waited for someone to tell me that I mattered because I was his. I was waiting for someone to be my gravity and he never appeared.”

“I’m sorry,” he said, thinking there wasn’t much else he could say.

“Too deep too quickly,” She paused, hugging her legs. “Sorry for the seriousness. Now I’m cold, and not in the mood for love or grand discussions.”

He unzipped his backpack again and pulled out the blanket. He walked across the crunching tarp, and placed it over her. She looked up and smiled, then rested her head back on her knees. He sat back on log. The forest had darkened, and under the cover of dusk they now glanced directly at one-another.

They made small conversation: about school, about work, about their friends. They agreed that their parents would miss them. That their friends would quickly move on. Death, he thought, made for good conversation.

“I am like a squash, with my insides carved out, thrown out on the carving board before serving, and I feel only the breath of empty space, standing in a handful of dust.”

“Poetic,” he said, thinking that he had heard the line in a song on the radio.

“Thanks.”

“Might you one day find something to fill the empty space?” he asked, seeing as she had made the line her own.

“I can’t find meaning if I always feel hollow.”

“Always?”

“Like going around in endless circles.”

“Yes.”

He breathed in deeply, loud enough for her to think he was brooding, when in fact he did not know how to respond. He excused her virulent renunciations. She was, after all, in Aokigahara, on the border of life and death—and, he reminded himself, so was he.

“And you?” she said, interrupting his thoughts. “Why here?”

“Hikikomori,” he said, using the unique Japanese word for digital withdrawal.

With a simple nod, he knew she understood. He felt empty, and suspected she felt the same. But she struck him as outgoing and confident, how could she have ended up here?

“Opposite problem, same forest,” she said, raising her shoulder, tilting her head, and smiling at him again. They both seemed comfortable in the stillness of the forest.

They continued to talk. She told him about her school-yard crushes, he confessed to her about his one summer romance with a grocery store clerk two years before. They both agreed that nostalgia was a toxic medicine.

She continued. “Love at first sight is silly, I know. It’s the most dangerous myth. But love after so much connection, is that too much to ask?”

“Maybe you are asking the wrong question?”

“Maybe.”

“What question should I be asking?”

“If I knew myself I would tell you,” he said.

“So you came here searching for a question?”

“I came here to stop the questions.”

“Same,” she said, pausing momentarily. “This conversation is heavier than cough syrup.”

“What did you expect?”

“I didn’t expect you to stumble unto my patch of forest!”

“Sorry again. If it’s any consolation, I promise it won’t happen again.”

“It is a consolation,” she grinned, “and don’t be sorry. You brought me this blanket. If this was a coincidence, than it’s the kind of thing that can happen in stories.”

She wrapped her hands around her knees tightly now, wrapping the blanket fast behind her back and stuffing the ends between her knees. The moon bathed the forest in a muted silver light. She was crying now, he could tell by a faint glimmer in her eyes and the sound of her breathing, but he did not know what to do: console her or let her be alone to fight with the Yurei, after all, wasn’t that why she traveled to the forest and unraveled her grey string?

For the first time, he spoke. “Real life. I don’t think I gave it a chance.”

“Opposite problem number two,” she replied. “I gave it too many chances.”

“Are you going to give it another chance?” She asked.

He didn’t answer. He stared into the distant shadow of trees, trying to distract the tightening of his heart, the watering of his eyes. He replayed the question: are you going to give it another chance? As if punctured by a needle, he felt a sudden surge of sadness, erupting first in his chest then traveling through his shoulders, down his limbs, and to his nose and cheeks. He could not hold himself back. He shook violently, his breathing broke, and he, too, wept.

“Koko-ni Kuru,” she said.

Legs quivering, he stumbled over to her and she covered him with his blanket. They lay, touching foreheads. Then she placed her small frame in his arms and he rested his nose on her hair. They could hear each other’s tears tap lightly unto the tarp. They sunk into the moss and into each other’s warmth. He held her, arms across her hips—a live girl with blood in her veins.

“It was good I followed your grey string,” he said.

He felt the world pulsating in his ears and released a deep sigh. He closed his eyes. She turned to him and delicately kissed him to the sound of the wind rustling between the pines. Then her caresses turned passionate. As if on impulse, they slowly and silently completed each other’s form.

After, he held her gently until her shoulders rose and fell rhythmically, until he could feel the sonorous breathing of her sleep. He clamped his eyes shut, hoping that he could somehow burn the feeling of her weight, her muscles, her joints, and her oscillating movements into his memory. But a dreamless sleep closed over him quickly like a heavy timber door.

The morning light woke him, and he opened his eyes to a forest veiled in heavy fog. He rolled over, but found only a soft imprint into the moss where her body rested in the night. He sat up and peered across the opaque landscape. Beside him lay an empty backpack. Her neon-green nylon rope was gone, his last pear was gone, and his pills were gone. On the log where he had sat the night before lay her simple canvas shoes, tied together in a neat bow.

He gathered the tarp and folded his blanket. Her shoes were cold when he placed them in his bag. He walked up the hill and found the grey string. She would not need its guidance.

He unwound her loops around the thin fir and picked the sting up from the forest floor. He looped the twine carefully around his hand as he moved cautiously down the damp ravine. He was determined to prevent the now delicate string from unraveling under the weight of the morning dew.

He remembered the limbs he had used as footholds and shuffled down the roots of the trees, winding as he went.

By the time he reached the first hemlock beside the path, his hand had disappeared under the coils of string. The string, removed now from the forest, meant that the trees were again mute and empty, save for her body, hidden somewhere, forever, amid the tortured landscape.

With his heart heavy and his backpack light, he veered right onto the trail, towards the parking lot and towards home. And as he turned his head back down the path one last time, he caught sight of a small silhouette as it laid a new string from the path into the belly of the forest and walked farther and farther into the forest, fainter and fainter into the mist.

 

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