The torii gate was faded gray and green between the vines that grew from its poles and lintel. It was not maintained like those on Mount Haguro or Yudono with their fresh red paint and ritualistic upkeep. There were no shrines here for tourists to visit and crowd around, week to week, milling like ants on a hill, bustling about and chasing away whatever peace and sacred silence once inhabited there. Ayumu chose this Northern mountain because it was abandoned to the spirits.
It was dangerous, they said.
Haunted, they said.
Forsaken, they said.
Perfect, he thought.
He had taken a train from the overflow of Tokyo out to these isolated mountains to escape the too-treaded paths of a world overpopulated with people and thoughts and lights and sounds. He could disappear into these mountainside woods, inhabiting the silence and letting the silence inhabit him until his very self disappeared, fading within the foliage and the bushes and the shade where twilight dreamed on, even at midday.
A crow cawed from atop the torii gate as Ayumu walked through it. He glanced up to the lintel from the other side, but the crow had gone, and so he continued slowly up the overgrown trail of the leisurely-rolling incline, the buckets in hs hands not so heavy now that his spirit seemed so lightsome. He was Ascending.
Ayumu had shaved his head. He had abandoned the shelter of his apartment for the mountain, and forewent his salary suit for the robe of a Buddhist monk. It felt good. He felt alive for the first time in a long time. He felt like he had shrugged off the weight of the world and was soon to lighten his spirit even more. For the mountain would shoulder him, and weightless would be his earthly presence forever after.
It was to be a long hike, he knew. The mountain was tall and hard to navigate. That was why the temple crowning it had been abandoned for so long. No tourists came here, nor many holy men. Ayumu might have been the first person to venture its wooded slope in years. Who knew?
But he was not as alone in the woods as he had thought. He came to a clearing beneath tall, slender trees where stones were ringed in a circle. In the center of this circle sat an old man in red priestly robes. Atop his head was an eboshi, its black plume darker than any shadow in the forest.
“Hello,” the old man said.
It was too late for Ayumu to circle around the priest without giving offense. Reluctantly, he approached the old man.
“It is rare to see a pilgrim on this mountain,” the old man said. He sat cross-legged, his eyes closed. He appeared to be meditating, but there was a smirk on his thin-lipped face. His hooked nose overtopped a small cup from which he occasionally sipped.
“I am seeking Ascension,” Ayumu declared. His voice seemed very small in that vast forest, and he felt foolish. He set down his two buckets beyond the ring of stones. “I am to become a sokushinbutsu.”
The old man smirked more broadly, and sipped his drink quietly. He did not open his eyes.
“That is why you carry pine needles and resin,” the old man said. “Mokujikigyo. You will be a tree-eater.” He opened his eyes. They were dark black in the shade of the tall trees. “But there is more to becoming a holy man than shaving one’s head and putting on robes and making a meal of trees.”
“I am prepared to do what is necessary,” Ayumu said, testily.
The old man nodded. “We shall see.” He set aside his own cup and reached behind himself, another cup grasped in his knotted hands. His fingernails were long and sharp as he offered the small cup to Ayumu.
“Habushu,” the old man said. “To celebrate your Ascension.”
Ayumu stared at the cup, and its dark yellow liquid. He had never had habushu before. Drinking alcohol was never something he did. But he knew about habushu, or snake sake, and so he took the cup in hand and stared at it in the overlapping penumbrae of the forest. The small cup appeared bottomless with deep shadows.
“Come, come,” the old man said, impatiently. “Drink up! It is privilege, that wine. Not many will taste of its like.”
Ayumu sighed, then downed the cup in one gulp. The sake burned and he doubled over, coughing and gagging, his hands on his knees as he dropped the cup. The old man laughed loudly, his caws eaten with static like a crackling radio station.
“It burns,” Ayumu said, still coughing.
“Pungency is important,” the old man said. “It reminds us that we are alive.”
Ayumu was angry, and opened his mouth to retort. But through his tears Ayumu saw that he was alone. Still reeling from the drink, he straightened himself up and glanced around the forest. The old man was gone. Only the ring of stones remained.
No light penetrated the trees to dapple the forest floor. All was blue shadow and a ceaseless twilight dream. Night never came, nor morning. Ayumu may have been hiking only for a few hours, or for several weeks. Time held no dominion here in the stillness of this sacred land. There were no clocks, no schedules, no deadlines, no expectations.
He did not miss Tokyo. To the contrary, the thought of its loud, bustling heights and depths inspired anxieties in him anew. The silence of the forest assuaged these anxieties and he focused his mind on appreciating Nature as it sprawled around him.
He saw the monk at a distance. The monk wore an orange robe, like a Shaolin, and walked with graceful surety in every step, no matter how treacherous the dirt or the grass or the fallen leaves. Ayumu slowed, afraid he would intrude upon the monk’s solitude, and that the monk would intrude upon his own solitude. To his great disappointment, the monk suddenly stopped and waited. Ayumu slowed, too, and then stopped. The monk looked back at him, hands on hips, and Ayumu knew it was no good to linger longer. He approached the monk reluctantly.
“I am not following you,” Ayumu said. “And I did not wish to interrupt your walk.”
“Was it that you feared interrupting my walk, or that I might interrupt your walk?” the monk said.
To Ayumu’s surprise, the monk was a woman, her head bald and her eyes gleaming in the veiling shadows of the trees. Even bald, she was beautiful.
“I am seeking to Ascend,” he said stupidly.
She looked at the buckets in his hands, filled with pine needles and nuts and resin. “You are a follower of Buddha, then?”
“I aspire to be one of his greatest followers,” Ayumu said as modestly as he could.
The female monk gave him a small, knowing smile, then gestured farther up the trail. “Let us walk together,” she said. “And talk of Buddha and the Path and other such wonderful things.”
Ayumu accepted this offer, walking beside the monk up the lounging mountainside. The air was fresh and clean here, redolent only of earth and grass and wood. They walked in silence for a time, but he could not focus on the hike itself. He was distracted by the female monk. She reminded him of someone, though he could not recall who.
“Are you hungry?” she asked. “Would you like a rice cake?”
“Yes,” he said. “But it must be the last earthly food I eat before I commit myself to the diet of the ascetics.”
“Of course,” she said.
Much to Ayumu’s dismay, the monk parted her robe and reached between her surprisingly large breasts, withdrawing a rice cake. Ayumu could see her translucent bra within her robe, and her nipples poking through that thin material, as she handed him the rice cake. She was slow in covering herself once again. The rice cake was warm with the heat of her bosom.
Distracted, Ayumu nibbled the rice cake absentmindedly. His lips and tongue caressed the rice cake as if it was the woman’s breast. Eventually he shook himself out of his sensual stupefaction and ate the cake in a succession of hasty bites.
“The Path is a hard one,” the monk said. She smiled at him sidelong, her dark eyes like black almonds in the shade of the forest. “You must have a vigorous spirit to dare such a destiny. It is not for the weak-willed and the…impotent.”
“I will not be deterred,” he said. “I will be the next Buddha. This I vow.”
Ayumu puffed his chest out, unconsciously, as he continued to walk, holding the buckets up higher than before.
“Yes,” the monk said, eying him steadfastly. “You are quite…virile in your faith. I can see the strength in your spirit…and your body.”
Ayumu’s pride swelled, alongside something else. The heavy robe he wore only partially concealed his manhood and he began to slow his stride, physically uncomfortable and greatly embarrassed by his body’s impudence. Amidst all of this discomfort, he suddenly remembered who the monk reminded him of. There was a young lady in Tokyo who was lovely and kind to him, and he visited her once a week, paying for her attention in the Soapland brothel where she worked. Ayumu had never had a relationship with a woman, but visiting her was quite enough for a salary man such as himself. The bathhouse brothel was quiet, refined, and discreet, but the young woman was the superior personage of that establishment. Within the steamy silence of the private room she would tease out all of the anxieties and stress that knotted into his core, slathering and slithering along his rigidity with her supple manners and motions and manipulations.
It was a marvelous place, mostly. The spa music had trickled on koto strings, and the crushing wall of Tokyo’s panorama was sealed away behind cool, tranquil lighting and lapping water and the mesmerizing feline eyes of the young lady in the kimono as she undressed, stepping out of her silken skin and burnished and laquered in oil and steam and foggy lights. Yet, heaven had no place in Tokyo. Ayumu often felt the presence of thousands of men crowding that soft-chiseled space between spaces; a thousand men riding every square inch of her naked body, crowding him out until he was an outcaste in his own session of massage and sexual release. He could not escape the multitude.
And as she dragged her petite body up and down his own— her swelling curves filling up the shallow flatness of his slight frame—he felt not joy or lust nor relief, but the weight of a million people pressing down upon him with their demands and anxieties and expectations. Moaning, he had shoved her off of him and floundered like a broken-backed demon on the slick, inflatable mattress, his hostess shrieking for help.
“Something wrong?” the monk asked.
“No,” Ayumu said. “I was only thinking.”
“About what?” She eyed him suspiciously, her eyelids hanging heavy over the slits of her eyes. She did not have a very pronounced nose. It was more like two slashes in the smooth snout above her wide lips.
“About Tokyo,” he said. “And my life there. It was not a life. It was a death. I hated it. That is why I am here.”
“What is wrong with Tokyo?” she asked.
He frowned pensively, then sighed. “Everything.”
They rested on two smooth rocks that stood side by side beneath a cherry blossom tree. The pink petals hung over them. Strangely, it was the only cherry blossom that Ayumu had seen upon the mountain. All the other trees were cedars and oaks and such. Framed by the pink foliage, the monk woman’s profile was beautifully picturesque. Such an image would enchant all of Japan were it captured in a photograph, and would be subsequently debased as a tourist greeting card sold in shops all over Tokyo. It was a depressing thought.
And yet Ayumu’s eyes were distracted by something in his periphery vision. Turning away from the monk, he saw white tattered bags from a distance. Garbage! All the way up here! Amidst so much sacred purity! It was sacrilegious! He was about to give word to his fury when the monk suddenly rose.
“Why do you carry those buckets?” she asked.
“For my Ascension,” he said.
“So you can become like those men in the temple,” she said. “Those dead men.”
“They have reached Nirvana,” Ayumu said. “That is the ultimate goal of the Path.”
She snorted. “Tell that to their husks,” she said. She began to walk away.
“Where are you going?” he asked.
“To make water,” she said. She gave him a knowing smile. “You can make your own, I am sure.”
She said nothing else, but disappeared behind a copse of trees. Ayumu looked away, lest he be taken for a pervert, and returned his eyes to the garbage snagged on some bushes and roots. Standing, he went to pick them up.
But as he approached the crinkly white scraps he saw them more clearly in the perpetual twilight of the forest. Bending down to one knee, he discerned that the scraps were large tatters of snake skins shedded off along the forest floor. Not garbage at all! He picked it up and turned around. The monk woman stood there, looking aghast. Before he could say anything, she bolted through the woods and disappeared.
She was gone. Ayumu had not even inquired after her name. Strangely, her bra remained behind. He knelt and picked the thin, translucent material up from the forest floor. It was scaled like snake skin.
Ayumu hated Tokyo. Among the crowd his heart quickened, the anxieties running riot to the war drum rhythm in his chest. Sometimes he loosened his tie and forgot about its slovenliness until his supervisor reprimanded him halfway through the workday. Sometimes he wished to strip free of all clothing and spend the rest of his days meditating beneath an ice-cold waterfall, its downpouring roar drowning out the inane noise of the world.
Traveling through Tokyo was the worst necessity. He slept in his office every other day, returning to his small apartment only to take baths, and despising the jostling railway train where he was packed in among other people like grains of rice in an overstuffed bag. Solitude was nowhere to be found, yet loneliness was everywhere. It was a terrible paradox that defined the city. His cubicle was a place closed off to the world and open to the world. He was never alone, yet always seeking the peace of a recluse. Most days he just worked, from sunup to sundown, the time of day told by the small scrap of light that touched his cubicle wall through the windows on his office floor. He never had a break from the long spreadsheets that wallpapered the prison of his life.
And so he thought becoming a sokushinbutsu would be easy. The pine needles would not be much worse than the noodles he often ate while working through his lunch breaks. The sedentary meditation would not be worse than the endless glare of the computer monitor that stared back at him from his desk. The mountaintop solitude would be wonderful compared to the loneliness of his life in the city. Everything would be better in the end.
Or so he thought.
“There is a venom in you, and it brews deliciously.”
Ayumu was so startled that he nearly dropped his buckets with jumping.
The old man in the red robes was right beside him, grinning. Ayumu was too flabbergasted to speak.
“Like habushu,” the old man said. “But how will it be prepared? Will you drown alive in the wine or will they freeze you and gut you, day to day, slowly, keeping you half alive and half dead on ice, and then thaw you out in the future, when you will startle awake and strike, once, in desperation before you die? Either method is good for a tantalizing drink.”
He grinned mockingly, his teeth sharp beneath the hook of his long nose.
“You scared me,” was all Ayumu could say. The rest of what the old man had said made no sense to him.
“You are just like all of the others,” the old man said, grinning. “You think you are special, and that you deserve recognition and honor and a place in history, but what have you to merit such distinctions? You will climb halfway up this mountain, grow bored, and then return to your life, ungrateful for the world you live in.”
Though taken aback, Ayumu was slowly understanding that the old man was mocking him, and it angered him.
“I will Ascend,” Ayumu said, trembling in anger and fright. “I will follow the Path to its culmination. I have the faith and the discipline.”
“A faith and discipline built upon hatred,” the old man said. His eyes remained closed. His face was mottled with age spots, but also red with splotches. It was a long walk for an old man. “I know what kind of man you are. The venom brims in you. It will overflow.”
“What sort of petty priest dismisses a man seeking higher realms?” Ayumu demanded. “Leave me be, you crazy old man. I came to this mountain for solitude, not for company from doddering fools.”
“You seemed fond of that woman’s company,” the old man said. He opened his eyes, and they were blacker than night. “Anyone could see that.”
Ayumu flushed red, but whether with anger or embarrassment or both, he did not himself know. “You befoul this sacred silence here,” Ayumu said. “Go elsewhere and ramble. I am tired of listening to you.”
The old man had gone, as if vanished into thin air. Ayumu felt disconcerted and anxious. But he pushed away thoughts about the weird old man and continued walking, focusing his attention to the moss underfoot, and the trees overhead, and the fresh air in his lungs. He would not allow himself to be disturbed by an old coot lost in the wilderness.
His thoughts drifted, but now they drifted to Nature to Nature. He thought of the other mountains and forests around Japan where he had hoped to visit someday. Mt. Fuji. Mt. Asama. Mt. Aka. He had wanted to visit various natural goshintai, too: holy objects such as rocks, trees, waterfalls, and even mountains themselves. He had deeply contemplated, too, visiting Aokigahara and Ascending there, as thousands had before. Yet, their ghosts would not have let his rest. It, like most of Japan, was overcrowded with other people. He wanted a place of solitude and silence unto himself. But even here, in this abandoned wilderness, there were madmen to intrude upon his much-deserved tranquility.
How he hated Tokyo! His coworkers were nothing but red-faced Oni bullying him about, as were his neighbors and all of the people on the streets of Tokyo. Aggressive, loud, jostling and bustling and tiresome, snorting and frowning and judging. They were an Oni parade marching out of an endless nightmare. His neighbors in his apartment complex were the worst. He had been arrested once, for a crime he had not committed— the kidnaping of a little girl, no less— and though he was proven innocent and released after the real kidnapper had been caught, his neighbors nonetheless persisted in treating him as a guilty pervert. They would not speak to him— and shunned him in the hallways and on the stairwells like a plague. One of his neighbors was a coworker, so the rumors of what had happened had also spread to the office. He nearly lost his job and had to procure a statement from the police declaring his innocence. Even so, everyone looked at him askance, suspiciously, glaring like demons whenever he passed them in the halls. Soon afterward he shaved his head, gathered his bucket of pine needles and tree resin and prepared for his trip to Northern Japan.
Ayumu smelled delicious aromas upon the air. His mouth salivated and his stomach churned, growling plaintively about the emptiness aching within its pit. He was woefully hungry at the scents that wafted through the mist-skirted woods. Stepping through a cluster of dense trees, he found a clearing wherein a man sat, huddled next to a fire. The man wore a tengai and a straw cloak. Ayumu could not see his face, beneath the rice straw dome, and wondered how the large man could eat while wearing such a hindrance atop his head.
“Welcome, stranger,” said the man from within the dome. “Please, sit. There is enough food for the two of us.”
Without thinking, Ayumu set his buckets down and sat on the other side of the fire. A pot hung above the flames, and a stew bubbled redolently within it. The delicious smell of the stew was entrancing. Ayumu had difficulty focusing on the man on the other side of the fire.
“You are a pilgrim,” the man said.
“Yes,” Ayumu said, staring at the stew. “I shall become a buddha.”
“Ah,” the large man said. He stirred the stew with a ladle. “I once knew that old dream.”
“You are an adherent to the Buddha?”
“And aspired to become one, yes,” he said. He snorted. “Not worth the bother, to be honest.”
This bit of blasphemy focused Ayumu’s attention on the man once again. Staring past the stew, Ayumu saw that the man was large, chubby, his big gut hanging out of his robe with uncouth abandon. His face was still hidden behind the interlaced straw of his tengai, but Ayumu could sense the man’s hidden eyes watching him. His hands and gut were very hairy, as were his feet. He wore straw sandals that looked old and worn with walking.
“But Enlightenment…” Ayumu said.
“What of it?” the man countered. “I can find peace right here on this plane of existence.” He held up a bowl and ladled some stew into it. “Would you care for a meal? Rabbit stew with shiitake mushrooms. Fresh ingredients, too. Ginger. Wild onions…”
“No,” Ayumu said, his voice cracking almost unto a wail. “I am on the Path. I must…I must not partake of such delicious fare.”
The large man shrugged and lifted the bowl to his face. Tipping the tengai back, he poured the scalding-hot stew into his mouth; his mouth obscured now by the bowl. He slurped the stew down with a guttural gurgle in his swelling throat. When he had finished, the tengai concealed his face as before. He sighed long and loudly, making Ayumu peevish. The way he ate, and the tantalizing smells of the stew, reminded Ayumu of all of the foods he could never eat in Tokyo because the restaurants and vendors were always too crowded with other customers whenever he went out for his supper. More often than not he had settled for vending machine noodles while everyone else around him— not suffering from his social anxieties— ate very filling meals that he could only appreciate vicariously. Resentment bubbled up in his bilious throat.
Ayumu stood, taking up his buckets again.
“May the Buddha watch over you,” he said. “And lead you again upon the Path.”
“Going so soon?” the man said. “Good luck upon your Path, then.”
Ayumu turned away from the fat man— and his seductive stew—and plunged up the mountainside, through the towering trees and deeper into that eternal twilight.
The cataract hurled itself from the overhanging crags like a frothy, pearl tongue, splashing amidst the pool to settle into serene idleness. Ayumu saw a kindred spirit in that desperate act and hoped to become like that pool as he himself rushed headlong toward the tranquility of the Path.
Feeling so much kinship so keenly, Ayumu decided to take a dip in the calming pool. He set aside his buckets, stripped off his robe, and waded into the cool green waters of the pool. It was deeper than he had thought, the ground disappearing suddenly beneath his bare feet. He floated like a lotus upon the tranquil depths.
He drifted for hours, it seemed, surrendering himself to the weightlessness and the mist that breathed over his face from the waterfall. The gentle roar was purer than any white noise or music or insect chatter. It filled up his senses and he could have simply accepted the waters into himself, sinking like a stone to the bottom of the pool and never surfacing again. It was a peace of selflessness— of Zen negation.
And then something bumped against him in the water. Thinking he had drifted upon the embankment of the pool, he pushed himself off of it sluggishly with his languid muscles. It was not the bank. It was like a tree trunk, but flexible as rope. And it was moving Suddenly something grabbed him with a thick, corded coil, entwining him and dragging him under. His peace gave way to terror, but he had succumbed to darkness before his last gasp of bubbles had broken upon the pool’s surface.
He did not wake all at once, nor remember himself or acknowedge what was happening to him but in smattering glimpses of images and sensations. He had vague impressions of pleasure, and horror; of surrender and struggle. He longed for the climax of death, and was embraced by it— in a manner of speaking—at last emptied unto oblivion afterwards. He became like a dead root within firm soil; numb to all things and tied down to the earth.
After a time his eyes cracked open, reluctantly like clams clamped tightly shut, and he saw through the bleary twilight the forest floor, glistening wetly all around him. He himself felt hot and damp. Torpid, he moved his head only slightly and saw the monk woman slipping her naked, gleaming body into her orange robe, her long coils disappearing into the folds of her garments. Dressed now, and human, she approached him, kneeling beside him and putting a cold palm on his flushed cheek.
“Do not seek the Path,” she said, her voice a susurrous sibilance in his ear. Her long forked tongue in and out between her lips. “Stay here with me and let us seek pleasure until the end of all earthly days.”
He tried to speak, but his numb tongue rolled ineffectually in his mouth— parched, lax, half-dead with the expenditures of desire and dread. He managed only a mumble.
“You will rethink it all before it is too late,” she assured him. She then walked away, her body swaying left to right with a serpentine swagger that belied the simian subterfuge of her stride. She disappeared into the misty woods.