Over Mount Fuji (17)
Everything is crashing. The noise roars louder. Byron sees wreckage raining down, falling on him. Pinned and choking on dust, a storm of pain courses through him and he can’t feel his legs.
Two samurai appear, poised and ready to pounce. As they swing their katanas across his mid-section, he screams and closes his eyes. Then, silence.
When Byron opens his eyes, a beautiful maiden stands before him. He moves his hands toward her, but the slab above him cracks, a few pieces of debris fall. He hears muffled voices. “Anyone in there?”, “Can you hear me?”
The horning of ships woke Byron in the early morning. He struggled to sit up, but cringed in a rictus from his cramp. Peering from the cabin’s window, he massaged his legs and squinted at the shimmering sun through the clouds.
Ships sounded their horns from near and afar as Byron thrust his arms into his jacket. He staggered onto Satsuma Maru’s deck to view the shore and jetty, delighted that he would soon have his feet on solid ground.
A flurry of excitement exploded among the crew when the crowds gathered at the docks of Yokohama.
Carrying bouquets of flowers, little girls in colorful kimonos, white socks and slippers stood in front of the crowd. Tears streamed down the cheeks of mothers and wives, eager for their sons and husbands to appear on deck. Among the assembled press and cheering spectators, officials mingled with priests who offered prayers. A cannon fired a military salute from the nearby hilltop.
Oh! Back on earth, but it’s heaven! Byron smiled when the research vessel anchored and the crew disembarked. Brightly-colored ribbons decorated the gangways. Sentinels, posted fore and aft, saluted the crew over rails and bulwarks. Professor Yoshino, Akita and Kiichi jostled from the ship to a press conference, where each gave his experience of the expedition. Imperial recognition seemed assured.
Throughout the pomp and pageantry, Byron still felt himself reeling as if the ground shifted beneath him. He would gladly be back to conduct more analyses of the data they had collected once they no longer required his public appearance. Except for the wreck, nothing appeared significant.
Over the next two weeks, while Byron took swimming with a new passion, Wulfstein had become more introverted.
Back at Sakura, the villa they stayed, the Professor often sat alone for long hours and his response to questions monosyllabic. Something must be weighing on his mentor’s mind. Wulfstein worked seven days straight at the lab since his arrival. Rarely did he go to bed before midnight, and often left for work before Byron rose.
But after another week, Wulfstein refused all questions or interviews, often returning home early at around three in the afternoon to read and meditate. During twilight, he took long walks south of the villa. When back in the lounge, he normally sat in his favorite armchair, coffee on the side table, pencil in hand, doodling.
Whatever scientific debacle Wulfstein might try to avoid, controversy would remain. At his instigation, the crew had found a wreck. Byron wondered if this finding would relate to the lost Hornets. If so, how?
Late one Friday afternoon, noting that the Professor was in a cheerful mood, Byron decided to ask him about his background.
“I graduated from the University of Munich,” Wulfstein said.
“And what did you study?”
“At first I specialized in Egyptian and Greek philology and paleography.” Wulfstein pointed to the scholarly books on the table. “I learned to read those texts in the Sumerian and Assyrian tablets. During my graduate program, I reviewed the history of cuneiform languages and read Chinese pictorial scripts.”
“Chinese pictorial script? You mean you studied Mandarin?”
“Yes, and being fluent in Mandarin, I studied and taught dragonology for seven years at the University of Kaifeng.”
Byron grimaced. Odd! Everything seems odd! “But how did geology come into the picture?”
“I came to believe in the synergy of knowledge. So I went on to MIT to study science.”
“Then you don’t believe in specialization?”
“Not exactly, but if your eyes are fixed too closely to the trees, you wouldn’t see the forest.” His chest heaving, a surge of inner emotion seemed to grip the Professor as he continued. “Only the blind would take a portion of an elephant and say: ‘This is it. This is all it is.’ You need to study each part of an elephant and put them all together, Byron.”
The old Professor seemed passionate. With his magnifying glass, he referred to where the Philippine Sea plate subducted below the Japanese mainland, the solid bulk of Izu Peninsula acted as a stumbling block. It collided head-on with the continental crust, serving like a brake.
“If no quake relieves the stress caused by the blockage,” Wulfstein said, “it will continue to accumulate—giving rise to a Big One stronger than 9.5 on the Richter scale.”
Byron shook his head. “That’s a mind blower. At least ten million would die if such a quake hit the Great Kantō region.”
Wulfstein turned silent. Byron noticed the old man had never mentioned anything about his family, and despite having made a name for himself in the scientific community, he had few friends. Yet it would be erroneous to say he didn’t have social adeptness, for he often shook his head in sorrow and mentioned how sad the loss of lives would be if his prediction came true.
“Japan may be known as a Necklace of Islets,” Wulfstein said. “But what’s not well known is that Japan is also a Necklace of Calderas.”
Byron remained quiet. He knew any caldera is a supervolcano like Yellowstone, usually circular depression at the summit of a volcano formed when magma was erupted from a shallow underground magma reservoir. Finally he asked, “You mean 130 million souls are going to perish?”
“Only in the extreme, Byron,” Wulfstein said, his face crumbling with sadness. “Only in the extreme.”
The Professor’s ironclad obsession with solving the caldera mystery had overtaken the exciting finds in the western Pacific. How could they relate to each other? And was Wulfstein so morose and sorrowful because he thought the extremes would eventuate?
The mysteries remained. Wulfstein had been searching for other explanations, perhaps even in close touch with other fields of knowledge. For, in a manner befitting the crackpot many said he might be, he had books on Atlantis and Lemuria scattered across his table.
“What are you investigating?” Byron asked, but the old man appeared as if he hadn’t heard him. “Have you found any evidence that the lost continent of Lemuria had dissipated under the waves?”
And in the last few days, the Professor maintained his silence. Whenever Byron drew him into discussion, he clammed up. It became increasingly plain that his nerves had been strained to breaking point. His sorrowful face told a story, and he often appeared teary-eyed; he might be racing against time to find the evidence to support a prediction of a Big One—and losing.
But on the next Saturday, Byron discovered from the Japan Times that the old man had speculated on mythical beasts. “There must be more beasts living in the deep,” Wulfstein wrote. Reading it, he shrugged, resenting Wulfstein’s refusal to admit him into his confidence. After all, Wulfstein had invited him to Japan, and expected them to work together. Instead, the Professor often wandered into another era, another world. Perhaps even into fantasy. How could any beast, however huge or mythical, be relevant to earthquakes? How could he allow himself to be captured by such fantasy? With such extreme conjectures, surely he deserved a reputation as a quack.
Frustrated, Byron could only watch Wulfstein frowning in his armchair, struggling against some odds, seemingly unable to reconcile his thoughts. Although lightning flashed and thunders rolled outside, he remained undistracted. Did he think a calamity would soon occur, and that innumerable lives would be lost?
Byron became confused. Was Wulfstein comparing himself to a war correspondent? A vulture? Or a carcass?
“I’m sorry the conclusion of my prediction has devastating consequences,” Wulfstein continued. “I simply have to investigate the issue to the end.”
The Professor paused, his eyes narrowed to slits. “The compelling thing for me to do is to see the geological mechanisms at work and test the ideas that’ve been on the fringe of accepted scientific theory.”
Byron listened, and now he realized Wulfstein wanted action—back to the graveyard of the earth?
“We must put these ideas to the test,” Wulfstein continued. “Right now, Byron, you are my witness. I’m predicting a major eruption from Mt Fuji within the next six months.”
“Are you sure?” Byron asked. “Mt Fuji had erupted three months ago, but nothing serious had happened.”
“I’m definite. Its silence is only temporary.” Wulfstein slumped back into his seat.
Silent one moment, explosive the next, the Professor himself was acting like a volcano.
Outside, rain and hailstones splattered upon the roof, followed by lights flickering and rolls of thunder.
“Very few will want to hear this,” Wulfstein continued. “We must make a trip to the ocean floor to study its environment. I don’t want to cast my mind to the erroneous predictions made by others. Mind you, a pack of wolves is already at my door.”
Byron wanted to ask, but the phone rang. He answered it and handled it to Wulfstein at the caller’s request. It resulted in a long interchange between Wulfstein and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. Byron suspected that the Academy was about to pick the Professor as the winner in geosciences. He had already heard of the award, one with emphasis on “the dynamics of the deeper parts of the earth.” And the recipient was obliged to give a Lecture at the laureate Clifford Prize award.
Once Wulfstein hung up, his eyes looked clouded.
“Congratulations,” Byron said.
Wulfstein looked edgy, his eyes flitting. “I’m expecting the Lecture will be scrutinized by a mix of wolves and vultures.”
“So the Lecture will be a bait?”
“Sure. That’s why I tried to stay away from these conferences and symposiums. I’m happy here, free from the shadow of the scientific community.”
“Have you considered this might be an opportunity to discredit your work as mythology?”
“My work is more than mythology, Byron. More than a billion lives are at stake. If the Lecture is a bait, they can have my neck, too.”
Byron didn’t know exactly what he meant. “Aren’t you concerned that they consider your work has been fouled by your earlier search for the lost city of Atlantis?”
“Don’t you realize our society has already been mythologically fouled? We need to reevaluate everything, including the numerous causes of lost civilizations. Are we an exception, Byron? But our most universal custom is a gobbledygook.”
“Our society is already fouled?”
“Do I need to tell you this, that the grandest festival in the world has its origin in a myth?”
What is the old man trying to say? Is he going to introduce another baffling subject? Astounded, Byron responded with a puzzled look.
“Heads clouded collectively in the sands, our society couldn’t figure out that the festivities of the December 25th holiday originated from the mythological birthday of Mithra, a Babylonian Sun deity that demanded Sunday be kept sacred.”
Byron contemplated for a moment. Odd! This is real odd! Although universal acceptance shouldn’t be the deciding issue, such beliefs were just a collage of man’s quest to understand truth.
“Science and clear thinking will perish from a desire for conformity,” Wulfstein added. “And when I die, I’d like to be remembered as a fish that didn’t go with the flow.”
Byron thought it was this unpopular search Wulfstein had been indulging in since his youth that caused his alienation. An eclipsed aspect of his self-assured identity, created by a deep-seated conviction that had a subconscious effect on him. His mentor couldn’t stop now; he must continue; he’d endured too much to have his work destroyed.
Head bent, Wulfstein fell deeper and deeper in thought, oblivious to everything else.
But Byron’s anxiety rose. Would the Clifford Lecture bring the issue to a climax?