Sea of Trees
By Robert James Russell
Winter Goose Publishing
On an October night Ken Suzuki was approached about work by a man named Ryohei Mitsuru—a Yakuza enforcer better known as Toro. Ken had run into Toro a few times before within the small circle of friends he had, a man he had never spoken a word to, but feared, as they all did, due to his association with the "chivalrous" organization. So when Ken received a call from Toro requesting a meet, he did what anyone in the know would do: obliged.
"It is in the forest," he said pulling him into a small hostess club. "Aokigahara."
Ken smiled, took a drink of the whiskey the beautiful hostess brought for them. "Oh, that forest."
"You do not want the job? I was told that you have been out of work for quite some time. I am sure your family would be proud of you to earn a wage."
"Yes, but... Aokigahara is—"
"Only a forest. Besides, for a single day you will make more than you have had all year."
"And if I say no?"
"It is a job offer, not a command. But—" he finished his whiskey—"it is never bad to have me owe you a favor."
Ken took a drink. "Yes, I suppose not."
"Do you still see Jun?"
"Do not be so afraid," Toro said. "We have mutual friends. And I know Jun... a little, anyway. I had heard you and she were together."
"Oh, well, not any longer, no."
"What happened?" Toro said watching him intensely, waiting for an answer.
"We drifted apart is all," Ken said looking at the floor, then at the beautiful hostesses, never at Toro's eyes. "It happens."
"Yes it does. Well, perhaps it is for the best. Besides, there are many other Juns in Japan. Maybe she was not the right Jun."
Ken laughed nervously, finished his drink, and for the first time noticed tattoos peeking out from under Toro's jacket cuffs. "So, when do you need me?"
"And what is it I would be doing?"
Toro stood, removed a folded piece of paper from his pocket and handed it to Ken as he made his way for the door. "Your partner will fill you in tomorrow."
The next morning Ken found himself dressed in a green ski jacket borrowed from his father—although he did not tell his purpose, just that he had found work—and met a man named Toyama at Shinjuku Station who likewise had been drafted by Toro. The two men exchanged pleasantries and boarded a train for Otsuki, an hour's ride, and it wasn't until the final leg—via bus—that Toyama informed Ken about what it was they would be doing in Aokigahara.
"Jukai has its share of visitors, as I am sure you are aware, many who never return. The Suicide Patrols and the police, they only find a handful of the bodies every year. The woods are... twisted and confusing. Very easy to lose your way in there. So Toro and others like him, they draft people like us, maybe out of work, or homeless, to go in and loot the bodies, take anything of value."
"Well, they cannot very well use their belongings now, can they?"
"I suppose not, no."
"So we will go in and relieve them of their things, bring them back to Toro."
"And we will be paid for this?"
"Yes, and—" Toyama looked around, made sure no one was listening—"no one will know if we keep some for ourselves."
"Are you sure?"
"The wage Toro will pay is good, but not great. There is no map of these bodies, so he will not have to know what we did and did not pass by. That is... if I can trust you."
Ken thought hard. "I do not see why not."
"Yes. Exactly. Some of these people have some nice things on them."
"Maybe I will find a watch... for my father?" Ken said aloud, watching out the window.
Toyama studied him. "Yes. Anything is possible in Aokigahara."
The two made their way into the forest in the early afternoon along a pre-determined route that had been assigned to them by Toro. There were no cars in the visiting parking lot they passed through, no discernible hikers they could see, and it was some time before either man spoke.
"It is so quiet here," Ken said finally.
"That is the first thing you all say," Toyama said.
"There are others?"
"I have been here a dozen times now, I believe. Give or take. Every time I find it more beautiful than the last."
"I find it very unsettling," Ken said as they passed an especially warped and knotted tree trunk that looked like a face peeling away from the wood.
"The first visit will do that. But now when I come, I find it very peaceful. Very... romantic."
They continued on, finally discovering a body—a young man, a teenager. Ken watched as Toyama put on plastic surgeon gloves—"For the germs," he said—and checked the boy's pockets, flipping him over onto his back and revealing his sunken face, the flesh tight and in the thralls of decay. Ken was surprised at how easy it was to look at him, that the fear he assumed would wash over him—since he had never seen a dead body before—never came. Even when his turn came when they happened on a middle-aged woman, mostly skeleton now with mats of hair and skin stuck to a piece of the coat she still wore, Ken was at ease checking her for jewelry, money, anything of value they could pocket or bring back to Toro.
As they continued deeper into the woods, Toyoma taught Ken the most ideal places to look for bodies, where and when the Suicide Patrols came (as well as parts of the forest they refused to venture), and how to interpret the many signs along the trails so as not to get lost, "Easy to do," he said. Ken had looted half a dozen bodies by dinner time, and as they ate the meals they had packed, hunkered down not far from the trail, they shared with one another the most interesting items they had picked up.
"Not as good today," Toyoma said. "Someone else has been through recently, I think."
"I found some nice things," Ken replied as he ate.
"Let me see."
Ken emptied his pockets on the ground: a few pieces of jewelry, personal items belonging to a girl (make-up, a comb, etcetera), a few coins. "What do you think?"
"Worthless," Toyoma said picking through the things. "Except the jewelry. I will hold on to that."
He picked up the ring and a necklace, admired them, and stuffed them in his coat. "I think there is a camp up the hill behind us. Would you mind taking a look while I finish eating?"
"Shouldn't we be leaving soon?" Ken looked up at the sky—what sky he could see, anyway—noticing traces of night already on the horizon. "It is starting to get dark."
"Yes, soon. But we should check this last spot."
Ken made his way up the small hill as Toyoma watched him. By the time he had gone up and over, he found a body—another woman, but no camp—and proceeded to check it as he had been taught. He was busy in his work, finding a scrap of paper with directions written on it, more coins, and so did not hear Toyoma approach from behind, or take out from inside his large jacket a long, thin knife. In fact, it wasn't until he heard the final footstep of Toyoma approaching that he knew he was there at all, turning as the knife entered his side, between the ribs. Ken fell back to the ground, but not before Toyoma stabbed him twice more, near the first wound, both times puncturing so deep the pain was delayed and not noticeable until he took a step back to survey the damage. He watched Ken writhe near the body of the woman, unable to speak, hands clutching the wounds as if it might help.
Toyoma looked at the knife, then back to Ken, and tossed it on the ground. "Toro says this is for Jun," he said.
"J-Jun? I do not understand." Ken said, forcing the words out.
"Jun Inoue is Toro's cousin. He knows you got her pregnant, made her get an abortion. Then you left her to be alone. Called her a slut."
"No, you do not understand—"
"It does not matter," Toyoma said. "This is the message I was to deliver. That you disgraced her, and now she is not the same, because of you. Toro wished for you to feel half of what she does."
Toyoma kneeled. "To be honest, I think you are a good guy, from what I know, so I am sorry it has to be this way. But this was my job. I hope you understand."
Ken reached out, tried to grab a hold of Toyoma, but he stood, distanced himself. "You cannot... leave me..."
"I really thought you knew who Toro was," Toyoma replied, walking back toward the path. "How could you not? Or, maybe you did not want to see..."
Toyoma disappeared over the hill and it took another few minutes before Ken processed that he was truly alone, dying slowly—painfully—next to a woman who had reached a similar fate of her own doing. As he lay there along the ground, near her, he looked up at the trees and thought of Jun and of what he had done—perhaps it was the death that had a hold on him now, but he felt remorse for his actions for the first time. Ken truly had loved her, but acted like a child, so perhaps this was for the best.
He then thought of the hours to come, the life slowly slipping away, and even though no one would be around to see, he decided he would do the right thing—as well as the quick thing, to save himself from a long and agonizing end—to account for his sins against Jun. He managed to pull himself up and find the knife Toyoma had discarded, the blade soaked in his blood. He looked back to the woman behind him, imagining for a moment that she was Jun, that they were still together, and without thinking about it jammed the blade into his neck, going against every natural reaction to remove it, slicing deep and long in order to do the job right.
The last thing Ken saw was a torrent of red wash down his neck and hands, covering his lap, then his eyes glazed over as he faced the trees—the great trees of the forest—calling to him, welcoming him home, and, more than anything, forgiving him for what he had done.
Sea of Trees COPYRIGHT © 2012 by Robert James Russell
Excerpt appears courtesy of Winter Goose Publishing