Angie Sijun Lou
After dusk in Seattle, look for the moon. Sometimes it burns pale fire over the tree line, other times it hangs crookedly nailed to the sky; a slivered hangnail bitten from God’s hand. Only summer knows when it’s time to fall back.
Most of the photos on this roll are negatives; side effects of accidental shutter clicks, damp palms caressing each other in a sea of limbs. But there is one shot where you can see the moon. It shines floodlights through your open window. I see two skinny ghosts perched on a narrow fire escape, playing Solitaire with their respective decks. This is the only photo I will keep of your face.
“No aces,” Alexei says blankly.
“There’s never any.” I squint through his cigarette smoke at the set of playing cards in my hand.
“We could play the Forty Thieves version,” he says. “It’s supposed to be easier because we can see all the cards from the beginning.”
I turn towards him, but my overgrown hair brushes the top of the deck and an ace drops between the railings of the fire escape. The card hovers in the air and then lands gracefully in a garbage disposal in the alley. A sleeping homeless man awakes, looks concerned, then ceaselessly returns to his sober comatose.
Alexei coughs. “I think life is a night class for all the people who smile too hard during the day.”
I laugh. He puts down his cards and rubs his face underneath his owl glasses, rolling back his irises and exposing the red veins of his eyelids. Ever since he moved into the city and started attending university he’s taken up this fixation with ruffling his hair like a wet bird – “because it adds volume,” he says. In middle school it used to fall straight and flat like a square helmet over his forehead. Secretly I thought it was kind of endearing then too.
“So what do you want to do now,” I say.
He flicks his butt off my railing and lets out an exhale that collides with the sundown. “I don’t care. I guess I don’t wanna go inside yet.”
“I feel like Dakota is still making Bad Experimental Music.”
Some muffled auditory convulsion comes from the adjacent window, shades drawn shut and Christmas lights lit up just to ignore the summer. I look up at the horizon overlooking the fire escape – the jagged, continuous line I’ve known since I was young, towers reaching upwards and towards the ocean just to prove that it’s a city. Dusk bathes this infant sky in pixels of dark pink and grey.
“Damn,” I say. “It’s like the sky is almost beautiful enough to be my desktop background.”
Alexei laughs, and then says, “Do you remember that one time maybe two summers ago when we were on your roof and it looked a lot like this?”
“During the Siberian wildfires?”
“Yeah, I just remember the sky looked like it had been lit with some kind of lavender fire too.”
I cough out a puff of smoke and point at a tiny pink cloud in the distance, struggling to make it over the Rocky Mountains before dissolving. Alexei and I had run into each other earlier that afternoon on the Ave; I was walking to take the bus home from my summer class and he was walking in the opposite direction to get his glasses readjusted, which is why he couldn’t see and collided into me on the sidewalk. We decided to go to his apartment and play Half Life, eat nutella sandwiches, and smoke cigarettes indefinitely. Now the night slouched slowly towards us, and we know that the day has passed.
Alexei yawns loudly. “Your shoe is untied.”
Before I have a chance to look down, we hear a shutter click from inside the apartment – followed with Dakota’s voice: “Hey Maya is this yours I think I just pressed something on accident??” We look over to see the skinny figure of Alexei’s housemate standing there through the open window, hair subtly disheveled and wearing one of his many Rare Holographic Band Tees while ogling my disposable camera like an unidentified vessel washed onshore.
All three of us look back and forth at each other and burst into laughter.
“That’s mine you bish, my mom gave it to me so I could record my last week here,” I raise my voice slightly over the sudden influx of nightfall traffic and formless amoebas of tipsy university students passing underneath us. A faint trail of mucus and liquor follows in their footsteps like the tail of a comet.
“Oh damn I totally forgot you’re leaving forever,” says Dakota as Alexei and I climb back in through the window. His face lights up with a grin. “But you know what this means right?”
Alexei and I look at each other. We don’t really talk about me leaving, but Dakota is the kind of person who would bring it up. I try to throw a random card from our abandoned game at him as if it were a shuriken, but it floats idly a couple feet in front of me. Ace of Spades.
“I know what you’re thinking, and I don’t want to do it,” I say.
“What come on, you gotta know what the world’s like before you go off to private school and put on your stockings and pigtails and resign to being the good girl you are.”
“I don’t wanna do it either,” says Alexei, uselessly.
“I’m just gonna call some kids and pick up a rack and we’ll all have a good night.” Dakota squints at the cracked screen of his phone while chewing on a hangnail. “No secrets, no weird shit this time. Maya, hit up your friends – tell them to come to the Ave.”
“I don’t have any.”
But Dakota doesn’t hear us; the front door slams shut as he bolts breathless to the liquor store before it closes. Alexei and I look feebly at each other’s shadows in the living room, then simultaneously drown into a couch stained with ash. A television speaks of obscure Japanese forest rituals and The Surprisingly Little-Known Method to Reverse Aging, but its secrets are washed out by stray white noise catching crossfire from below.
A gust of wind blows through all the windows we never closed. Playing cards flutter all over like tiny sleepless spores of dandelion falling from the sky.
Resting in the shadows of Mount Fuji, roughly one hundred miles from Tokyo, is a forest named Aokigahara. Most of the forest’s wildlife went extinct after the volcanic eruption in 1994, but the trees have somehow thrived in the bed of ash, reaching for Mount Fuji in thousands of dense clusters, staying evergreen all year–
“–I don’t want to watch a nature documentary,” I say, breaking a long silence.
“..I can’t find the remote,” says Alexei. “I think this episode has been playing on repeat for days now.”
“Let’s just unplug it.”
“I can’t reach that far behind the table.”
The sun has set all the way, and Alexei’s halogen reading lamp casts silhouettes of his pixie ears onto walls dripping with plaster. The white noise from the street sounds like the song of one thousand mating frogs.
“How long do you think it’ll be until he comes back?”
“I don’t know. Either in a few minutes or not at all.”
The tree clusters in Aokigahara grow so intricately together that even at high noon its possible to find areas shrouded in complete darkness underneath the canopy. It is very rare to hear a bird or any other form of wildlife making noise in the forest, and if you wander away from the main path you will find yourself surrounded by an eerie, almost uncomfortable silence.
Alexei starts rolling another cigarette and I toy with my disposable camera, feeling the weight of memory in my hands. My finger slips on the shutter, and the room is suddenly washed in an unbearable light brighter than the moon.
He blinks. “Its okay. I’ve never seen you develop any of those anyway.”
I laugh and don’t answer because he’s right. In all the dozens of single-use cameras that laid lifeless on my bedroom floor, mislabelled and clouded in dust, only a few of their cartridges have made it to the photo lab. What secrets would they tell anyway? The insides of backpacks, negatives of some cartoonish lights across a lake, some dark streets soaked in rain and oil stains.
“How come you never develop them?” Alexei asks, lighting another cigarette with a match. “Don’t you ever wonder about the things you’ve forgotten?”
“Not really.” Alexei’s silhouette, or at least some ghost body part of his, is probably in every photo I’ve taken. I like the shape of human bodies, not close enough so you can see their wrinkles or birthmarks or even the color of their eyes; just a lazy shadow against some pale red sun.
But a strange pattern has been recurring at Aokigahara for as long as the recorded history of the forest. Since the 1960s, at least 500 suicides have been committed in the forest. The police have discontinued publishing exact figures in an effort to relinquish the reputation of the forest, but still it remains the second most popular suicide destination in the world (after the Golden Gate Bridge).
“So what should we do about this,” Alexei says.
“What if we just leave? Like, right now. Before he comes back.”
“And go where?”
“We could drive somewhere.”
“No, we can’t.”
I forget that Alexei’s car was stolen again last week. This has happened a few times already, but it’s always found ~3 weeks later, several blocks East of wherever he left it. Maybe Alexei will finally learn to lock his car. Maybe the thief will finally realize it’s not worth it because that the stereo is stuck on NPR and the passenger seat smells like incense and vomit.
“We could go… on an endless walk… to the grocery store… in the afterlife,” I say.
“Why did you text me ‘let’s hang ourselves’ today.”
“..I was trying to say ‘let’s hang out,’ but then autocorrect suggested ‘let’s hang ourselves.’”
Ancient Japanese spiritualists believe that these suicides have caused paranormal forces to permeate Aokigahara’s trees, further preventing many who enter from ever exiting. Compasses are rendered useless due to the rich deposits of magnetic iron in the soil, and visitors often describe the feeling swallowed by the vastness of the forest.
“Okay well, promise to stay next to me tonight?” I reach over to touch Alexei’s hand, but it is once again occupied with volumizing his hair. “Don’t lose sight of me for a second. Or else I might blend in with the furniture.”
“The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” he says sarcastically.
“Seriously come on.” That used to be his favorite book in middle school. One time he was reading it while walking down the hallway and I tried to give him a high-five, but I missed and accidentally smashed his glasses.
“I know,” he says. “Cross my heart.”
The noise from the street suddenly seems deafening. I used to believe Seattle was a silent city before Alexei moved here, I think because we used to skip rocks at its mirage reflected across Lake Washington back when we lived in the suburbs. The water always shimmered with plankton, and the rocks never made a sound until they sank.
Since so many unidentified corpses litter the outskirts of the forest, some people have began ritually scavenging the bodies for valuables. These desperate attempts often do not result in finding anything of value: a ratty tent, some doll heads, a watch that no longer tells time.
“Should we just go?” Alexei asks. “We don’t have to do this.”
“Maybe. No. I don’t know.”
He drops his cigarette butt into an empty beer bottle sitting on the coffee table, and the wind blows another playing card through the window. It hovers and lays sleepy and lifeless on the floor, bored of its own metaphor, sick from the carcinogen air. I think of the treehouse Alexei and I built in the forest between our backyards at home, with the tire swing that was never aligned right so if you swung too high you would inevitably crash into a tree. Once in high school I ‘ran away’ for one night and Alexei came down to meet me there. He said good luck, gave me a sleeping bag and a deck of cards, and then disappeared up the hill.
“We can decide where to go once we’re gone.”
Now suddenly here we are, him and me and hand-rolled cigarettes and no one to tell us to come back in through open windows. Evergreen trees are washed out in acid dyes, August floods. Lighters burn brighter than moons.
“I think I just saw Dakota crossing the intersection.”
“Fuck. Okay. Let’s go. I’m coming.”
Aokigahara’s history as a forest of dark spirits dates back to the distant past; it is rumored that ubasute may have been practiced there. During long periods of drought or famine, elderly relatives were allegedly carried to the mountain peak or some other remote, desolate place in the forest, and left there to die.
“Honeyyy – I’m home!” Dakota slurs after kicking open the door. He pauses once he sees our silhouettes perched uncomfortably on the fire escape. “Where are you kids off to??”
Alexei and I look at each other sheepishly. I pull a cigarette from behind my ear as he hands me a box of matches. “Nothing. We were just waiting for you.”
“Well come back in – have a drink, have a smoke, spend a month on the kitchen floor. Look who I ran into on the way back, have you met Theia or Richard??”
A girl sticks her stubby earthworm head out from behind Dakota, and all I can see is a mop of bleached hair and a bull’s piercing strung on the tip of a globular nose. She waves hello and tries to maneuver herself past Dakota, but they both become temporarily stuck in the doorway.
I don’t recognize the boy either. He has a fluffy tuft of ginger hairs protruding from his chin and is sporting a white tank top that reads TONIGHT WE ARE YOUNG. His pulley-ID makes me believe he probably works at a start-up that is CHANGING THE WORLD.
Alexei shyly retreats back in through the window and says something that sounds like “hi i’m alex…”. Dakota hands everyone a beer and they make further attempts to be sociable. I stand and do nothing.
It is said that the trees are soaked in the malevolent energy that has accumulated in the forest after years of suicide. As you can see in the following image, some of them have intricate roots that resemble tentacles, and many visitors have reportedly hallucinated these roots reaching slowly upwards and towards them.
A gust of wind ripples through my tar-black hair. It tastes like the salt of the ocean and gently sways me to come back inside through the open window. But I couldn’t – somehow the shadows pinned to the apartment walls no longer belonged to Alexei and Dakota. Their abrupt motions looked breathless and poorly-rehearsed, spittle flying from their mouths and hands flailing aimlessly and comically towards the sky and towards each other. From where I stood on the fire escape, their lives became a silent film reel where we are all the actors and nobody was watching except the moon.
One elderly man works as a shopkeeper near the entrance of the forest, and has said that it is often obvious which travellers do not plan on returning. On one occasion a woman tried to kill herself and failed, and then walked right past his store with a part of the rope was still tied around her neck. The shopkeeper described her eyes as ‘nearly popping out of their sockets.’ He calmly took her inside, made her some tea, and called an ambulance.
“Maya!” Alexei suddenly sticks his smiling head out the window. “What are you still doing alone out here?”
He reaches an arm out. I pause for a moment, and then reluctantly let him lead me back inside. When I touch his hand I notice it feels damp and sticky, like an ecosystem of gum living underneath a desk. My senses feel flooded as soon as I step back in: the walls are vibrating in tune to a Drake song, Dakota’s unicorn-shaped children’s disco ball is rotating sadly in the middle of the floor, and Theia and Richard are bouncing joylessly along to the beat. Alexei leans in and begin shouting into my ear, “Sorry we didn’t get a chance to leave!!!”
I try to smile. His breath smells vaguely of rotten cotton candy.
“Do you want a drink, Maya?” Dakota asks, already pouring one with a coy smile. “This party is all for you, and it’s only starting.”
Suddenly the buzzer of the apartment goes off, and without a pause the door opens to what appears like an infinite flood of human bodies – mouths all gaping open, shining with sweat. Each one attached to their own trail of mucus and beer that could be retraced back down the stained steps of this apartment complex, over the sleeping bags and nightly rituals of the city’s homeless, back to suburban deserts and cold beds.
The Japanese government has taken active measures to reduce the number of deaths in Jukai by placing surveillance cameras at the entrance and scattering signs along the main path. Their messages plead: YOUR LIFE IS A PRECIOUS GIFT FROM YOUR PARENTS. PLEASE CONSULT WITH THE POLICE BEFORE YOU DECIDE TO DIE.
I can’t move. Dakota shoves the mixed drink into my hands. “Made especially for the birthday girl,” he winks. I open my mouth to say it’s not my birthday, but he’s already dissipated into the crowd. The red cup nearly slips through my fingers, and I can feel the ice condensing all over my shaking hand. I look inside – a deep purple potion with tiny endless bubbles all rising to the surface.
I raise the cup to my lips and take a slow sip – a bitter ambrosia. I look around for Alexei, but he is nowhere. A sudden flash invades the foreground of my vision, and when it fades away I see Dakota standing there, once again, with my camera in hand.
“You said you were recording your last week right?” he winks, laughs manically at the sky, then disappears into the ocean.
Remorseless bodies collide into me, sticky fluid flows between my bare toes. The flash of my camera fades in and out of my peripherals. Then an icky, nauseous euphoria washes over me, as if my head was floating away from my body and soon nothing would be left to hold me up. I look at the bubbling potion in my hand and nearly spill it all over the hardwood floor.
But you’ve only had a sip, someone whispers into my ear. I try to look around, but my eyelids are too heavy for my face. Drink more, drink up bbygurl, drinkdrink idrnk idkrk. My ghost body swallows the rest of the purple nectar in one long breath and I feel its weight disappears from my hands. That’s right, this party’s all for you.
I feel myself being pulled violently in and out by the tide of swaying limbs. I try to shove myself between grinding bodies, but everyone I pass wants to introduce themselves and touch my face. I can’t tell the difference between people and wallpaper as I grasp onto sweaty-coated skin for balance.
Suicide was repopularized in Aokigahara after the release of a 1960 novel by Seicho Matsumoto, Kuroi Jukai, which ends in a pair of young lovers committing a joint-suicide in the forest. Aokigahara then became notoriously known simply as JUKAI – Sea of Trees.
A figure appears in front of me. For a moment I can’t tell if it’s Alexei or a hologram, but then it touches my cheek. I barely recognize him because when he’s drunk he gets this glassy stare, as if his veins were trickling out from his eyelids. I stand dumbfounded as he tries to speak but the music keeps growing louder and louder and his mouth keeps opening and closing, opening and closing like some beached whale gasping to be underwater.
“Maya, is that you?” he sloshes. “Maya, now that you’re leaving. Something I always wanna tell you…”
– REMEMBER THAT NOBODY IS WATCHING YOUR TELEVISION SHOW EXCEPT THE MOON –
“I wanna lose my virginity to you. Maya, Maya… I always love you.”
I can’t speak. My vision fades and I feel my body beginning to collapse underneath me, and then all that’s left is a ghost hand fumbling hopelessly for my palm clasped shut against my chest. A sudden, high-pitched cackle pierces the sky from somewhere far away. Its echoes so loudly that the city’s mirage trembles on the lake.
I wake up naked and in darkness. I know I am on Alexei’s unmade bed in the corner of the living room, damp from summer sweat and spilled liquor, moth-eaten from windows we’ll never close. I lay still, eyes fixed open and long hair pouring over the sheets like a waterfall. I can feel the subtle movements of Alexei’s body under the covers coming closer and closer to mine. The acid pattern on the ceiling moves in dull, circular waves, and I dream of walls collapsing in a technicolor nosebleed onto my pale skin. His fingers touch my wrist. No heat.
Forest workers follow slashed trails of yellow tape deep into the woods, left by the suicidal who are still hesitant of taking their life. At the end of the path they find the victim’s body, badly decomposed, suspended with ropes in midair. The workers cut the noose, carry the corpse down to the local station, and place it in a room specially insulated for the dead. After dusk, the workers play jan-ken-pon – rock, paper, scissors – to decide who will sleep in the room. They believe if the bodies are left unattended, the corpse’s yurei will scream through the night.
I look up at through the open window and see millions of stars glistening, but all unrealistically like a matrix of neon phytoplankton swimming across the sky. Alexei touches the strap of the satin brassiere resting on my cold shoulder as I stretch an open palm out the window, over a fire escape oozing with crystal and dust, over a city ambushed by the tide. My eyes close as I feel my hand detach from my body and hover towards the moon. I remember the time in middle school Alexei told me that he dreamt my eyes were the planets in his diorama of the solar system, two tiny glittery tennis balls staring ceaselessly into the void.
In Japanese legend, all humans have a spirit, called a reikon. It leaves the body at death and enters a form of limbo before joining its ancestors. But if one’s exit is influenced by sudden, violent emotions such as a betrayal, hatred or sorrow, then the reikon transforms into a yurei, a ghost. These ghosts are illustrated with white kimonos, manes of long, disheveled hair, hands hanging lifelessly from wrists.
“This is just between us, cross your heart?” he whispers softly, and then buries his owl face into my neck as if he were tightening a noose.
ANGIE SIJUN LOU is a writer from Seattle. She lives in Brooklyn and tweets at @kuntalope.