Over Mount Fuji (7)
Eileen awoke, her hair matted with sweat in her service apartment. She switched on the bedside lamp and shuffled to the kitchen to make a cup of coffee.
She stared at the golden pen, the pen that she always carried with her and now lay beside a notepad on the dining table. It belonged to her husband. She ran her fingers along its scratches. How long had it been since she last spoke with Jerry? Three years?
She closed her eyes, recalling the blissful days with him, sunning in tropical lagoons under the aqua skies. When they first met, he introduced her to camping, and they enjoyed the same passion for fishing, water skiing and scuba diving. Often, they spent their vacations in the Bahamas. But she remembered with sadness the last sequel to an adventure film they watched together, Pirates of the Caribbean, with its quest for lost treasures amidst romance.
Could he be alive? No, he couldn’t possibly have left without a word. But his body was never found, leaving her a scintilla of uneasiness she couldn’t bury. She tried to blank out her memory, but an image of his face along with the horror of his death remained constantly.
Now, though his smile still flashed across her mind, it had faded—unlike her sorrows and memories, which had become more vivid with the years. All his gear had been stored, his clothes and shoes packed in cardboard boxes, his favorite coffee mug wrapped and put out of sight. Except for this pen, with its chewed-up tip. Strange, how the smallest article could evoke such a powerful memory.
Pushing her feelings aside, she tried to fill her mind with her next assignment. Before she left for Tokyo, John Connolly, her boss at the Raging Planet, had laid out the direction to write: “What is going on in Japan? What do the Japanese see in all this?” Why Japan has a resurgence of seppuku?” But Eileen had added one more to herself, something she had wondered since her stay in Tokyo as an exchange student: With so much artistry, splendor and intensity in such aggrandized deaths, could there be hidden significance behind their tradition?
Eileen drove her maroon Honda Civic to the foreign press office, concentrating on her mission for the day. When she arrived, she glanced at the headlines and waded through the never-ending stream of news reports: Katsuura—dead: 20,000; Kamakura—dead: 200,000. Across the country, citizens had been complaining of a gloomy feeling and depression.
Reports of the two earthquakes that struck hundreds of miles southeast and northeast of Tokyo were sketchy. The Japanese government remained silent amidst accusations of not doing enough to reduce the effect of global warming. But NOAA reported: “The island of Honshu had sunk by two meters at the western shore and three meters on its eastern side. The northern tip of Hokkaido had dropped by four meters, which was one and a half meters more than the southern tip of Kyushu.”
Social discord, depression and suicides increased, compounded by a surge in the demand for dystopian novels, comics and kaijū movies—Godzilla, Mothra, Rodan, Varan, Gorath—all indulging in the premise of self-destruction on the mega-metropolis of Osaka and Tokyo and the sinking of Japan. Why such senseless themes? So overwhelming was this ominous phenomenon among the populace that it was dubbed the Sinking Syndrome. But why?
“What’s the latest?” Eileen asked the man tending the press corps.
“Volcanic eruptions have created new islets.” The man pointed to a wall map. “It’s a freak of nature.”
Once he had shown her the sea east of Honshu and Kyushu, Eileen left the press corps and headed to investigate the intriguing phenomenon. Her nerves tingled—the islands of mystery! She wondered how they burst forth as fragments from crushing plates. Her heart jumped as she drove her Civic through more rugged terrain.
Passing by the tiny-flooded plots of rice fields, she wondered how these farmers survived. Yet, knowing that they had managed with heavy toll for what their landlords once extracted from them in backbreaking labor, she had an inkling they would persevere.
Before long, a strange pressure churned around her, interrupting her thoughts. Eileen shook her head, but the sensation grew, a feeling her ears were about to pop. She switched off the radio and rolled down the window to breathe in some fresh air. The pressure eased for a moment, then returned with an even greater force.
A moment later, it faded away, replaced by a subtle hum in the wind, like machines operating in a factory. Are the humming sound actually minuscule earthquake swarms? A swarm is just is a bunch of earthquakes without any outstanding earthquake but are they precursors? She gripped the wheel tighter and braked, slowing down to listen. Not hearing anything, she continued onward.
As the road snaked through hairpin twists and turns, her Honda swayed from wind gusts near cliffs that grew precipitous. Clouds cluttered the sky. Shadows passing overhead drew her attention to a pair of hawks gliding above.
Eileen stopped the car to catch a view. A source of romantic inspiration, the hawks’ random flight conveyed a sense of togetherness and tranquility, reminding her of her husband. She squinted at the horizon. Fujisan had stopped erupting six weeks ago. Now looming in the distance, the volcano blistered from its snow-covered peak: majestic and breathtaking. She sighed, the pain of a missing companion kept coming back.
“I miss you, Jerry,” she whispered to the wind. “I wish I could feel you again.”
Eileen drove on. The road narrowed, becoming steeper and bumpier. But she persisted, bypassing a score of Japanese youngsters trailing up a hill, all dressed in white. A sight of purity, Eileen thought.
Smiling to her, they waved, shouting out some poetic slogans.
Eileen smiled back and waved.
Rolling mists drifted past the steep hillsides, but the same whirring sound troubled her. Where did it come from?
The Raging Planet reported that the hum originated from the Pacific, shifting back and forth, moving north and south. It seemed tied to winter in each hemisphere when storms were at their worst.
Now it grew louder, and she could hear it inland. She wondered if it signaled a new storm. No, they’re likely to be earthquake swarm. They’re precursors; our planet may be giving out a signal we haven’t understood. She shook her head.
After another hour, sections of the road turned into dirt, and she had to skirt parts that had been washed away. As she continued northward, the intermittent chirping of crickets subdued the creepiness of the hum. Soon the hum and the chirps receded. Thank God, some peace and serenity.
Late in the afternoon, Eileen reached a lake near Ichinoseki and spotted a cluster of somber-faced journalists. A sulfurous odor turned her stomach. She stopped her car on a grassy patch at the side of the road. When she swung the door open, she gagged at the stench of gangrene and rotting flesh. She tied a handkerchief over her nose and climbed up the crest of a hill where the journalists gathered.
To her right, a murder of crows exploded and vanished over the horizon, only to be replaced by others as if blown in by a fresh gust. Among the dark patches down the valley, a black shroud of birds emitted a relentless buzz like the chanting of sutras for the abandoned spirits of the dead.
Eileen could hardly distinguish the human corpses mingling with animal carcasses, reminding her of the Great Tribulation.
Maggots! Her breathing grew heavy as her stomach rolled. As bile rose to her mouth, she staggered down a path, braced herself against a tree and vomited.
Once the retching stopped, she wiped her mouth and struggled back to sit on a nearby rock, barely able to breathe. A breeze blowing from the southwest was refreshing.
Wanting to find what was going on, she dragged her feet back to see a black journalist wearing a BBC badge.
“What’s going on?” she asked.
“The world has turned upside down,” he replied. “I fear we’re witnessing what some say it’s the Black Swan effect, others the Four Horsemen’s rage.”
“That sounds like something out of a blue, or out of the Book of Revelation.”
“It is. Religion is occupying everyone’s mind, believing that some islands will sink under the waves.”
As Eileen reflected upon what she’d heard during her early church days, a growing despondency muddled her—diseases everywhere, the sun scorching the earth, the earth revolting against itself.
“Which islands?” she asked. “And where in Revelation are they?”
“Nobody can give specifics except the Moonies, the Mormons, or the Jehovah Witnesses. It’s an ideal time for anyone who preaches from their watchtowers to the 130 million souls that they have the answers.”
With conditions that made the locals susceptible, many evangelical ministers of apocalyptic sects had moved to Japan. Still, Eileen felt odd that a BBC broadcaster should give space and time for the spiritual. It must be a time ripe for any demagogue who seemed to have an answer. Eileen shook her head, realizing that the Japanese were seeking answers not only from their culture, but from any foreign religion.
“Ahem! We’ve just finished interviewing some converted souls,” the BBC journalist said to Eileen before gesturing for a few Japanese to come forward.
They came, some looking uneasy at being interviewed, others looking serious. “I often have a feeling of seasickness,” a young man said in halting English, “Now, I praise the Lord.”
“I suffered from nausea every morning,” one young woman said. “Now I’m well. Christ is my savior.”
More came forward. Each related how they’d succumbed to hysteria, dizziness, depression and nausea, but overcame them when they accepted the Lord Jesus.
Seeing their radiant ecstasy, Eileen smiled in response, feeling glad these locals had taken a more acceptable approach in life than seppuku or any other form of self-destruction.
Eileen exchanged sayonara with the crowd, returned to her car and drove east, navigating innumerable potholes and crumbled roads toward the coast.
At Rikuzentakata, she headed south.
When evening fell, she meandered along low-lying roads circling a bay. The heaps of debris ranging from shipwrecks, cars and trucks littered all along the coast. Marshes marked the road’s edge, and wavelets lapped it. At Sendai, some street signs stuck out of floodwaters.
After another ten minutes, she parked and trudged to ask about hiring a vessel to examine the new islets. When she stumbled toward the jetty, the odors of salty seaweed permeated with the reek of sulfur. Scattered clouds raced across the sky, and the full moon shone over the sea.
A sapphire-like glitter reflected from the bay, but the pier lay submerged. The Navy had placed the coastline and nearby sea off-limits.
Eileen strode back to her Honda and drove on. Once she rounded a corner, a temple bell tolled in the distance as though to guide lost souls home. On a street lined with garden walls, a ryokan came into view. Partially surrounded by bamboo trees and hills, the inn, with its manicured garden—streamlets, lily pond, waterfalls and cherry trees in abundance—looked welcoming and luxurious.
The host at the front desk introduced herself as Yoriko. Her hair was gray and thin on top. “Would you like tea? Or sake?”
“I want to have a bath first.”
Yoriko nodded with a broad smile. “We have an onsen bath prepared for you.” She handed Eileen a pair of slippers, together with a wadded yellow-cotton robe and a white towel, and showed her to an outside onsen bath fed by springs from the hills. Tall bamboo screened the moon. The gentle splash of a waterfall tumbling into the koi pool echoed the soothing charm of the inn itself.
“Enjoy your bath,” Yoriko said, “and I’ll be your company for dinner later.”
Eileen would have preferred to meditate on the day’s events, but touched by such hospitality, she nodded. Near the onsen bath, the air was steamy and humid. At first, she couldn’t see the interior by the glow of lanterns. She stopped every few steps, then followed the light. She touched the sliding screens and delicate wooden embellishments. The prospect of a bath was delightful after the day’s trip.
After she crouched in the cedar tub, the water rose to her chin, its temperature almost scalding, but to her it was pure bliss. Easing herself in the cloud of steam, she inhaled the mist, allowing the comforting warmth to relax her muscles. Renowned for its healing power, the hot mineral water tantalized her, washing away the effects of a long and arduous day. For a long moment, she enjoyed the scent of the perfume while reflecting on her mission. Only the splashing of the miniature waterfall in the darkened garden disturbed the stillness of the night.
A flock of birds took flight nearby, startling her.
The earth shook. Another tremor! The bathwater quivered; the whole building swayed back and forth like a ship in a swell. Eileen tried to stand, but couldn’t. A catastrophic roar came from the ground and the sky. Her stomach flipped, her heart lurched, her eardrums felt ready to burst as lanterns fell and more water sloshed out of the bath. In the next instant, the frenzy stopped, although smaller tremors continued. She shouted in the darkness, but no one came.
Eileen fought for breath; her mind froze. Visions of collapsing walls made her panic. She sat tight and breathed deeply.
When the tremors finally stopped, she wrapped herself with the yellow robe and rushed to her room and dressed. Swirling with anxiety, she looked out her window—an avalanche of rocks had fallen from a hilltop and landed closeby.
Eileen took a few minutes to collect herself. Lying on a white futon, she closed her eyes.
An anxious-looking maid knocked on the door and invited her for dinner. Eileen was escorted to an honored seat at a low table furthest from the entrance. Another maid poured out a cup of sake. She returned with a seafood platter.
“Didn’t you feel it? That tremor?” Eileen asked, still stunned when Yoriko-chan joined her.
“It’s nothing unusual here,” the hostess said. “A Land of Tears, life is a cherry blossom exposed to vagrant winds that know no master. No point in trying to forecast times and weather when Death is our heritage.”
“What do you mean?” Eileen asked, the sight of corpses still fresh in her mind. “Just leave our destiny to fate?”
“You’re already late in your investigation,” Yoriko said, pointing to the ruins. “We live in a land of violent death, of constant quakes and devastating tsunamis. The West says we can control our destiny; that’s a lie. One quake has just occurred right in front of you.”
“We’re all mortal; we all die, but why only in Japan are suicides so much aggrandized?”
“We are not indulging just for the sake of tradition, we’re preparing our senses of meeting our destiny. If this is our karma, why can’t we commemorate it?”
As Eileen sipped her sake, her mind struggled against the hostess’ strange statements. Is this how Shintoism justified these beliefs? Finally, she asked, “You mean we can’t do anything to control our fate?”
“Aren’t we all predestined?” Yoriko insisted with a tinge of bitterness. “Don’t you know that animals can also sense their destiny, and our minds can sense similar outcome? As for me, I’ve made my peace with the gods. Forty days after my death, I’ll be reborn. How could I avoid death if my time has come?”
“You mean our human psyches have an instinct about Japan sinking?”
“We have this intuition, and it’s Japanese. In Shintoism, we glorify our passing of this life.” After pausing for a moment, Yoriko continued, “But why are you so naïve about our national psyche?”
Astounded by her statements, Eileen thought of Jerry. Has fate decreed he die in a lava flow? Is that really going to happen to Japan? Is this why Japan has such an aggrandized suicide culture? Still fumbling with such provocative ideas, she gathered her courage and said, “I suppose when we decide to pursue a profession passionately, then the fear of death just disappears.”
Yoriko remained calm. “A moment ago, we might have all been dead. Only the fearless are free; only the ignorant resent their fate. Life and death are part of a whole. How can you separate a breeze from the wind? How can you separate life from death?”
Stunned, Eileen remained silent. Her shoulders slumped at the ominous perception. Prepare for the best but do not fear the worst. It couldn’t be true that life and death were the same. And how was the public coping with this national phobia? There must be a more rational way to just giving up without a fight. Who knows what might happen if we try harder? A thrilling sound that started low and ended high interrupted her thought.
“The crickets are making extraordinary noises,” Yoriko said. “A major storm is coming.”
“I heard them during my trip,” Eileen said, knowing crickets normally chirped during autumn, not spring. “What does it mean?”
“Something is stirring,” Yoriko said. “I do not know what or why, but surely something.”
Sobering thoughts, but Eileen remained calm. Her research had yielded more complications and corpses than she had hoped.
“Providence has prepared a path for everyone to follow,” the hostess said in parting. “All you need to do is be ready for the destination you’re designed for.”
That night, the movements of nocturnal birds made disturbances against the rustling waterfall. Eileen couldn’t sleep as images of the Four Horsemen kept rushing back. She shook her head, believing that none of the Four Horsemen had anything to do with the sinking of islands, but her mind failed to dislodge the earlier grisly sight of a sinking landscape with dead bodies.
She tried again, but an image of one of the Seven Seals appeared. Mountains started to move but sunk into the ocean. A necklace of islands took off and fled like a flock of birds.
Haunted by such turbulent scenes, she threw off her blankets and jumped out of bed. Remembering her scheduled commitment to Raging Planet, she took out her note pad and wanted to plot out her article, “The Turbulent Archipelago.”
Halfway through her opening sentence, shutters banged and rain beat against the window. A roof tile broke loose when the wind seeped and made the whole building shudder.
Sorrow and loneliness, mixed with apprehension, kept her eyes open. As with so many things, more turbulence might come.
Restless, she leaped out of the ryokan to investigate. She stumbled when she dashed further out of the compound, the wind tugging at her Winchester parka. Dogs howled in the distance and night birds foraged in the undergrowth. Gusts made the waves froth. The tide crashed in, the moon lay low on the horizon and the dank air stifled her.
She strode back to the inn.