Part three of an ongoing series.
It was a small station, unloved, paint peeling. Old aluminium benches lined thin walls that struggled to block out the cold. Its main face was open to the wind, a steel track careening upwards steeply.
Kiko’s breath condensed in front of her eyes. She waited in silence, alone at the foot of the mountain.
Smoothly and silently, an old cable car arrived at the base of the track. Its doors slid open. Kiko pulled her backpack over her shoulder, and stepped inside.
Nobody took this ride anymore. The automated journey rattled slightly around her, pulling her upwards. The car was just holding together; mid 21st century at the latest, it was in desperate need of a service. But it was clean, and safe, and thankfully quiet. Kiko closed her eyes and thought of nothing but warm breath.
Soon, she was trudging through snow and trees, water bleeding into her boots.
Up here, far above the crippling, coloured chiaroscuro of Osaka, everything was soft. The ground, the light, the shades of green and white and blue. The air was thin, and Kiko’s lungs took a while to adjust. As she trudged forward, moving from concrete road to stone path to dirt track, she felt fatigue creep through her more quickly than normal, but she liked it. Revelled in it, even; felt it hold her to the earth like an anchor.
It turned out that she liked the quiet, too.
Kiko arrived at an old ceremonial arch, a gateway into the forest that lined the mountain range. She closed her eyes as she walked through it.
As the day started to lengthen, so did the shadows of the trees, bending and black. Kiko picked her way across ancient paths, criss-crossed with roots, and through the deep forest she began to pick out the warm light of temples dotted across the landscape. This was an ancient place, filled with religion and belief. Moss covered totems huddled around the thin trunks of trees, old celebrations of death and rebirth. Graves.
Here, Kiko finally felt calm. Somewhere behind her, her life lay in wait, watching. But here, it couldn’t catch her. Here, she only noticed the difference in the light, the sounds of the sparse birds that had managed to survive the air that shifted complexion daily, washing up from the man-made forest of the city eighty kilometres away.
In the back of her mind, Kiko remembered a sound she couldn’t place. Whatever it was, she could hear it up here in the forest, somewhere amongst the inaudible texture. It reminded her of her father.
Kiko gripped the map, turned it over and over, studying it. Her fingers traced the scratched out path, eyes trying to compare the terrain around her to the symbols burnt into the paper. She wasn’t sure, but she had no other option than to keep going, wait for a signpost or a break in the forest that would make it clear where she was going. To hope that her feet were accurately replaying the path of a lost young man. She carried confidence. Was brimming with it. Steadfast and sure, lingering doubts squashed by the front of her crisp mind.
The path started to ascend, and for a while broke free of the thicket. Kiko caught a glimpse across the wide mountain ranges that separated her from the rest of humanity, and in the fading afternoon sky she could just make out the rising lights of spaceflight. They made her feel cold, and she turned back to her path, which quickly plunged back into folds of Japanese cedar.
Her path wound round and down, the map carefully leading her deeper into the forest.
The old totems became more frequent, settled together in tighter clumps. Occasionally, Kiko imagined she could still see light burning in the old stone lanterns, reminders of ideas long dead.
She stopped to catch her breath, and studied one of these tricks of the light a few metres from the path. It glistened cooly in the patchwork glow of the forest. Held up firmly to her consideration.
This one, not a trick.
Kiko fumbled off the path, over thick undergrowth, and found that the light was in fact the sun, bouncing off a smooth, metallic pillar bursting out of the frozen earth.
In stark contrast to the centuries old stone of the other graves, this metal totem was perfect in its form, shining and cold to the touch. It rose a few metres into the air, twisting slightly at its peak, splitting into two sheer horns that curled off into nothing.
Kiko stepped back, staring up at the completely incongruous sculpture.
She was going the right way. Of this, she was now certain.
She watched the light glisten from the horns for several minutes. Soon, the sun was low enough that the horns faded into the forest like wisps, and Kiko forced herself to look away. It was an effort. Horns like a vice, lodged in her frame forever.
Kiko turned back towards the path, and saw a man.
Old and gnarled, he hunched over a walking cane. In his other hand, he clutched a woven basket, filled with freshly picked mushrooms from the dark depths of the forest. He was watching Kiko at the totem, smiling toothlessly. Kiko stood still, expecting him to eventually reveal himself to be an apparition.
He waved her over.
Kiko stepped up next to the man, who kept smiling. His eyes were clouded, but they studied her as intently as they could. He smelt faintly of mud.
He pointed back off the path, towards the silver horns. He opened his mouth, and croaked in broken English.
Kiko looked back at the totem. Nodded. She turned to the man, and spoke slowly and carefully in the little Japanese her father had given her, long ago. The sounds in the wind.
“Do you live here?”
The man laughed. Kiko could just piece together his words, her brain racing to remember language.
“Here, no one lives. This place was given to others, many years ago,” he said surely.
“Your people called them that.”
“What did you call them?”
“The wide-eyed. The wide-eyed.”
The man patted Kiko lightly on the shoulder, and began making his way back up the path, the way Kiko had come.
Kiko drew her coat in closer, tightened her scarf. She called after him.
“Are they still here?”
The man didn’t look back. “Nobody leaves anywhere once they have arrived.”
And with that, he disappeared into the forest.
Kiko forged on, no longer consulting the map.
The day continued to darken. The night was coming, and it brought with it a cloak of cold. The path gradually disappeared, as she moved into more forgotten parts of the landscape, but Kiko moved forward with purpose, resolve.
David had come here a week before he had died, and Kiko knew that at some point, too, he had given up on his map.
Kiko tumbled through gradually thickening trees, deepening snow. The gravestones became more ancient, fallen and covered in thick plant life. The ground began to slope away, and Kiko started to slide as she descended a narrow valley.
Here, on this pilgrimage, Kiko hoped that she would learn – not what happened, necessarily, but at least a small piece of truth. That she would leave the forest carrying something, knowing something that she could write down, in words. But, like most things, knowledge was little more than a firefly, slowly extinguishing its light in the dawn. And here, in this dark forest, Kiko would get lost in the swarm.
Kiko reached the bottom of the valley and, suddenly, there in front of her, a massive stone wall.
A cleave in the mountainside, rising twenty metres above her, and stretching away either side to the extremities of the valley.
Kiko could no longer hear anything familiar.
She walked carefully forward.
The wall seemed natural enough. It was raw rock, unshapen by mind or considered purpose. But its presence felt strange, as if it heralded something missing, a gap from which something was pulled out of the valley. Vanished, somewhere. As Kiko reached the base of the wall, she looked upward and realised that it stretched up outward, overhanging so that from her vantage point she couldn’t make out the top. She stood quietly underneath, engulfed.
In the centre of this great monolith, a shard of black. A crack in the rock, perhaps half a metre wide, jagged and erratic. The opposite of the smooth lines of the metal signpost in the forest above. Inside the gap, nothing – just the deep dark of the interior of the mountain.
Kiko’s breath no longer rose as steam in front of her. She loosened her scarf in the new warmth. Dead leaves flicked out of the darkness, brushed by her feet.
She took off one of her gloves, threw it to the ground. Kiko felt over the sheer rock, noticing the bumps and grooves and crumbling debris under her fingertips. Looked long and hard into the inky blackness that broke apart the wall.
Scratched into the stone, on the edge of this natural, unknowable doorframe, Japanese Kanji.
Below, an English translation.
In the middle of that cold forest, Kiko finally knew that she was, indeed, lost.
Words copyright Matt Vesely. Image copyright David Keen.