It was late summer, but the clouds refused to part for the sun. The trees clasped their branches overhead, determined to keep Jun in the shade. It had been hours now with just himself and the sound of his boots against the leaf litter. His eyes traveled up the slope of Mount Hakusan and he thought of the last thing he ate: an apple at daybreak. How foolish he'd been sitting in the backseat of their friend Sato’s rusty blue sedan this morning, assuring Otsuki they could scale Gozengamine Peak with ease, that they didn’t need to stop at Murodo, the mid-point mountain lodge along the hike where the trio had reservations to spend the evening, after all. They had pulled into the paved lot of the Ichinose Campground at seven in the morning, when the wet fog was still thick. Otsuki, who was the only person in their party who had ever done the hike before, had suggested that they take the Old Echizen Zenjodo Route to the steeper Kanko Shindo trail, which traced along the ridge, instead of the flatter and better-marked Sabo Shindo path.
"More spectacular views!" Otsuki had said.
Sato shut the trunk of his car, looked up at the sky, and said, “Visibility is low. We’ll have to stick close.”
And for the first few miles, the young men had called out each person's name on the trail, waiting whenever one fell behind. But as the sun began to emerge in late morning, they grew lax in accounting for one another. At some point, Jun had stopped to dislodge a pebble from under his heel and his friends, shouldering their knapsacks, had forged ahead towards Murodo.
When Jun looked up, he was alone. He continued up the hill, thinking his friends had disappeared just out of view. But when he climbed up to the top, there was no one there. He considered turning back, but looking down the steep hill, the boulders and trees seemed to have all switched places.
“Otsuki! Sato!” he called out, but all he succeeded in doing was spurring a flock of black-winged ravens to fly from the branches of a nearby virgin beech tree. “Sato! Otsuki!”
He heard only the gurgling song of the cicadas, constant as running water. He took a deep breath and made his way slowly around in a circle, committing to memory the gnarled tree there that looked like an arthritic limb, the cluster of boulders, and the tufts of chocolate lilies that grew behind them. This would be point zero, so he would know if he ever returned here. He felt confident if he just headed towards Murodo, he was bound to run back into his buddies.
Now, the crunch of his footsteps were no longer comforting and his throat felt dry as scales. Everywhere, the underbrush looked the same. Logically, he knew there was no way this could be the case, since he had followed a straight line up and up, but he felt sure he had seen that large rock that resembled Rodin’s The Thinker before. And there! The moss formation on that tree was absolutely familiar.
Ahead, the broken stump was so large he couldn’t wrap both arms around it, but on the other side, he was certain there was a rotted out space that was shaped like a human head. He’d seen it earlier. He walked around the stump and leaned over it. The must of decomposing wood swam up his nostrils. The large hollow head was there, almost mocking him. He let out a loud groan. The birds in the trees overhead, frightened by the sound, cawed in a frenzy. Jun held his head with both hands.
“I’ve been going up this whole time. How can I be going in circles?” He yelled at the birds, who he thought were the only ones listening.
“Oh!” he heard a reedy voice coming from between two large rocks.
Jun ran to the rocks and found that there was a deep dip off the side of the trail and there, at the bottom of the chasm, lay a girl in a white dress. One side of her dress was brightly soaked in red. Her black hair was splayed all around her head like solar flares.
“Oh god, are you all right?” Jun called down to her.
“I think so,” the girl replied.
“Is anything broken? Can you move?”
The girl made an attempt to sit up, but her elbows trembled beneath her and she collapsed.
“Hold on. Lay still. Let me see if we can find a way to get you out of there.” Jun glanced around to see if there was an easy way to lower himself down into the pit. That’s when he heard, coming from further up the trail, what sounded like a wild animal racing towards them. He looked up the mountain and saw a girl running towards him, the hem of her white dress whipping against her naked ankles. Her feet seemed to barely graze the ground as she ran, brushing a fallen gnarled branch here, glancing off the surface of a rock there. She reached him in what felt like three breaths, and thrust her head over the edge. “Ane! I found you!”
“Help me, Chiyo,” the girl named Ane called up to the younger girl above.
Chiyo seemed to finally realize that Jun was standing there, and she looked to him, her black eyes wild with fright.
“Chiyo, is it?” The girl nodded. Jun placed his hands on her shoulders, “Don’t worry, I’m going to climb down and get her.”
Again, the girl nodded.
Jun rolled his sleeves up over his elbows and straddled the large boulders. He pushed himself down against the wall of the pit, feeling for a tree root or a protruding rock for footing.
“Be careful,” Chiyo said as Jun made his way down.
Jun jumped the last meter of the way and he crouched beside the injured young woman. She raised her face to him and winced. The luster of her skin struck him; it was like her forehead had been polished by sand. She moaned as she lay her head back down.
“How is your leg?” he asked her. She pulled up a corner of her bloody dress to expose a slender calf. An angry gash stretched from her ankle to her knee.
Jun took hold of the hem of her dress and ripped a wide strip from it. “Doesn’t look broken, but let’s see if we can stop the bleeding.” He wrapped the makeshift bandage around the gash. “That should do for now.”
The girl was silent and Jun figured she was in shock.
“I’m going to get you out of here,” he said as he slid one arm under her neck and another under the crook of her knees. He heaved her up and when he did, found her looking as though she were examining him. He felt the heat rise in his cheeks and he looked away. “Can you wrap your arms around my neck? Okay, good. Now hang on.”
She tightened her grasp as he began to climb the two of them up towards Chiyo. Ane buried her face into his neck and Jun could smell her: a deep sweetness like boiled rice. When they reached the top, Chiyo grabbed hold of Jun’s arm and said, “Thank you. Thank you so much for saving my sister.”
Jun leaned Ane against a rock. She released her hold around his neck, and her two arms fluttered down to her sides.
“You’re welcome, Chiyo. Call me Jun. And I’m no expert, but I think that cut on her leg needs attention right away.”
“Thank you, Jun, but I won’t be needing stitches,” Ane said. She raised a shapely hand to tuck a strand of hair behind her ear.
“It’s a very serious injury,” Jun said. “You’re bleeding.”
“I’ll be fine,” Ane said.
“Do you need any help getting home?”
“Yes! We do! And you should also stay for dinner!” Chiyo said.
“Perhaps you also have a phone I could borrow?” Jun asked. He moved towards Ane, who was struggling to stand. “I can carry you down if you’d like. Did you drive to the park?”
Ane held up a hand to motion Jun off. She leaned heavily against the rock, but managed to get herself up onto both feet.
“We don’t live down the mountain,” Chiyo laughed. “We live up the mountain, maybe a kilometer or so.”
“I didn’t know anyone was allowed to live here.”
“Well, of course they are!” Chiyo said. “We do.”
Ane hobbled silently ahead, past the two of them, and Jun followed.
They walked until they reached a low iron gate fastened between two trees which bore huge blooms of waxy, drooping petals so achingly fragrant it made Jun’s head swim.
“I’ve never seen Oyama magnolias so large! How old are these things?” Jun asked.
He placed a hand on a snowy cup-shaped flower. The two sisters glanced at one another and Chiyo said, “I don’t know how old they are. They’ve been here as long as I can remember.” Ane pushed the gate open and walked ahead.
“You know a lot about plants, don’t you?” Chiyo asked as she fell in step with Jun.
“I spend a lot of time outdoors,” Jun said. “I guess you could say I like the wilderness.”
“Me, too. I like the wilderness,” Chiyo said with a slow, toothy smile. “But you were lost when we found you, weren’t you, Jun-kun?”
“Yes, I was,” Jun said. “I was lost. I had some place to go and people to get back to.”
“And just where would that be?” Chiyo asked.
Jun thought about it. The name of it tried to take shape in his mouth but it dissolved. He squinted his eyes. It seemed important.
“I don’t recall right now. I’ll come back to it.”
“That happens to me all the time,” Chiyo said. “I know something, I say it again and again. And then when I must remember it, it just slips cleanly out of my mind.”
She smiled at Jun and Jun thought about how her incisors looked sharp enough to slice through raw flesh
“What about who you were going to meet? Any ideas about that?” Chiyo asked.
Jun rubbed his palm against his forehead. “We’re good friends. We go hiking together sometimes. And climbing.”
“Maybe I can help you,” Chiyo said. “Is one of them your lover?” Jun glanced at Ane ahead. Ane was holding the hem of her skirt in one hand, as though she didn’t want to further dirty the bloodied garment with the dust kicked up by her walking. Though there was no danger of that—she maneuvered the path like someone who had lived on the same road for her entire life, which made Jun wonder how she could’ve fallen at all.
“No, I don’t have a lover,” Jun heard himself admitting.
Chiyo burst out giggling and Ane called over her shoulder, “Chiyo, stop prattling.”
Chiyo stopped. “She’s so sensitive.”
“This is your house?” Jun asked.
It was a one-story stone structure with two exterior walls that extended forward to embrace a courtyard. Within the courtyard there was a large well, also made of the same gray stone. All around it, Oyama magnolias bloomed, leaching their sense-dulling perfume. He caught Ane scowling at him, and his flannel shirt suddenly felt too hot.
“I’m so glad to have you over. We never get visitors!” Chiyo said.
“Well, I’m not so glad. Guess who has to do the cooking for the dinner you so graciously offered?” Ane said.
“How is your leg?” Jun asked her as he motioned towards her. Jun thought he saw something whisking beneath the hem of Ane’s skirt. He moved towards her for a closer look, and but Ane pulled away.
“It wasn’t so bad of a cut after all,” she said.
“It was deep,” Jun insisted.
“It wasn’t,” Ane said. “I would’ve been fine even if you hadn’t come along.”
“I’m glad you’re okay,” said Jun. Then after a pause, he said, “If you can kindly direct me back to the trail, perhaps I should just go?”
“No!” Chiyo cried. She grabbed Jun’s hand and turned to her sister. “He should stay. Ane, please? You promised!”
Ane sighed and disappeared into the house.
“I’m sorry if I’m intruding,” Jun said to Chiyo. “It doesn’t seem like your sister wants me here.”
“She’s a private person,” Chiyo replied, smiling. She led him to the well and sat down on its edge. “But anyway, let’s not talk about her. What is this from?” Chiyo pointed to a raised scar on Jun’s clavicle.
“Ah, mountain climbing,” Jun said. He tried to recall when and where he’d had the accident, but trying to recall anything was as impossible as holding smoke in one’s hand, so he let it go. “I don’t remember exactly where, but I do know my crampons slipped and I broke my collarbone. I needed surgery to fix it back up.”
“And it left this?” Chiyo said as she rubbed her thumb lightly across the shiny surface. He clutched her hand and placed it back down into her lap.
“Sorry, that tickles,” he apologized. “How old are you, Chiyo?”
“How old do I look?”
“I’m no good at this, but I’d say fifteen?”
“I’m fifteen,” she said. She began picking on the threads of her dress.
“Where do you go to school, living way up here?”
“You should be in high school about now, shouldn’t you?”
“Did you go to high school?”
Jun laughed. “Of course. I know compulsory education doesn’t require it, but I did go to high school.”
“Is that what you did? Compulsory education?” Her smile was still present, but her eyes looked lost.
Jun frowned. “Where are your parents, Chiyo?”
“What do you mean? There is only my sister and me.”
“I’m sorry,” Jun said, glancing down at his hands.
“It’s always been Ane and me, and we’ve always been here. Don’t feel sorry for us. Come on, I’ll show you around,” she said. “We’ve never had a young man at the house before.” With a directness that belied her fifteen years, she took a fistful of his sleeve and pulled him to his feet.
“I’m honored to be the first,” Jun said.
The room they entered from the front door was a cavernous space with white walls and a stone floor, empty save for two finely carved hard-backed chairs.
“Do you like those?” Chiyo gestured towards the chairs.
“They’re very beautiful,” Jun said. He ran his fingers down the wood, admiring the grain. “Is this teak?”
“It’s keyaki,” Chiyo said. Our house was filled with nice things at one point, but it had already started to fall apart by the time we arrived. Time can destroy physical things, of course" Chiyo paused. "But sometimes I destroy things, too.”
“You broke them?” Jun asked. He sized up the tiny girl. “They couldn’t have been very well made doors.”
“Probably not,” Chiyo said. She took hold of Jun’s hand and led him down a hallway that branched off the right of the house to a small room. Save for a roll of blanket on the floor and a square pillow, the room was empty. “This is where you’ll sleep tonight.”
Jun began to protest, but he couldn’t think of anywhere else he had to go. He stepped into the room and looked around. Dusk was streaming through the only window, illuminating his sparse surroundings. Soon, the sun would fade. He noticed there were no lights on the ceiling, nor any lamps to be found. In fact, he hadn’t seen any lighting anywhere in the house.
“Do you have electricity in this house?” Jun asked, feeling for a light switch. His hand was met with the disappointing smoothness of the bare wall.
“We don’t need light. We see very well in the dark, but I’m sorry you cannot. We once had toro lamps in the courtyard, but we tore them down.”
“Why did you do that?” he asked.
Chiyo said, “Because we didn’t want anyone to know we were here. Sometimes hikers, they could see the light from the trail.”
Jun looked at Chiyo. She came up barely to his chin, her black hair was parted straight down the middle in the same manner as her sister’s, but there was a blur of red in her cheeks where Ane’s were pale.
“Sato,” Jun said. He felt the urgent need to leave.
“My friend’s name is Sato. He’s probably looking for me. I’m sorry, Chiyo, but I have to go.”
Chiyo followed after him through the hallway and the big, empty room. “But Ane’s killed a chicken.”
“Tell Ane I’m very sorry, but I must get back. We have a reservation at the lodge this evening.” Jun pushed open the front door and walked out brusquely into the courtyard.
“But no one ever comes over,” Chiyo said softly. “You can’t leave.”
Evening was gathering over the trees, casting shadows everywhere. The odds of finding or being found when one was lost in the woods dwindled in the dark, but Jun was determined to get out and find his friends and leave the two sisters behind.
Jun had taken off his shoes and forgotten them somewhere when he first arrived. Standing in the courtyard now he felt the tile, cool and rough, against his feet. But the heady fragrances of the flowers seemed to swallow him. His thoughts grew murky and with each step he took, it grew more and more unclear why it was so pressing to leave.
He turned back and, in the doorway, Chiyo stood with a hopeful look on her face, and even in the dimming light, her hair and her girlish shape seemed as though they were glowing. She held her hand out to him, and without thinking, he walked to her and took it.
When Ane emerged from the kitchen, he saw that she had changed into a new white dress, not unlike her torn one. In her hands, she was carrying a roasted chicken and a large carving knife. The knife seemed much bigger than necessary for cutting up the fowl. She set everything down in front of Jun on a large banquet-style table that looked to be made of an expensive deciduous wood. Chiyo and Jun sat down beside each other, but Ane walked over to the other side and flattened her palms against the tabletop.
“Eat,” she said.
“With you standing there?” Jun asked.
“I’m not going to sit.”
“Where are the plates?”
“We aren’t going to eat,” Ane said.
“We’re not hungry much,” Chiyo echoed, again baring her beautiful incisors. She propped her arm up on the table and leaned her head against it so her face was in full view of Jun’s face as he ate.
Jun gazed at the chicken. The heat rising from it bathed him in its aroma.
“How should I eat it?”
“We only have this knife,” Ane said, gesturing.
“I’ll use my hands.”
He ate ravenously, even chewing off the cartilage ends of the bones and sucking the threads of meat off the ribs. He ate so fast, he hardly had time to wipe his face, and so the grease gathered on his lips. When he was done, he caught Chiyo staring at him like a dream coming to fruition.
“I only had an apple today,” Jun explained a little sheepishly. He wiped his face on the flap of his shirt and cleaned chicken out from under his fingernails. While he had been eating, the sun had set and the moon cast everything in a bluish light.
“Now, you should go to sleep,” Chiyo said. “I’ll go make up your bed.” Jun grew steadily aware of how much he longed to lie down and stretch out. His neck felt too weary to hold up his head.
Ane leaned over Jun to take the platter from him, but before she picked it up, she whispered, “Run.”
“If you are wise—which you clearly aren’t—you would run.”
“Chiyo and I have existed longer than I can remember. Since the beginning, it’s always been the two of us.”
“Who are you?”
“Death is around every corner, yet it eludes us,” Ane said as she pulled up her skirt to show him her wound. Only, her calves were as smooth and polished as the skin on her forehead. “And Chiyo’s curiosity about it is insatiable.”
“Are you gods?”
“Are you an idiot?”
He stared at her face, the thin locked brows, sharp cheekbones, the attractively vulpine way her features were assembled. She looked afraid, he realized.
Jun pushed his seat away from the table and got up. He tried to make his footsteps light as he crossed the cave-like room, picking up his pace as he neared the threshold. He crossed through the mouthlike door, holding his sleeve across his nose to try and block the inebriating magnolias from collapsing his determination. Once Jun passed the courtyard, he began to run, the sharp stones and rocks digging into his soles.
He pushed through the trees until he broke his way through the brush and could feel under his feet the soft, cool dirt of a well-tread trail. But in the nightfall, he couldn’t determine which end of the dirt path headed upwards to Gozengamine Peak and which way pointed to the Ichinose Campground. He paused and looked to the sky to try to orient himself. Ostuki and Sato, would they have reported him missing yet? If so, the best way to be found would be to go back to a familiar place. He thought of starting a small fire, but immediately banished the thought. He couldn’t afford it if the sisters found him first.
Then he realized, his skin prickling, that he couldn’t hear the violins of the cicadas. In fact, all around him, the forest was silent.
Behind him, came the crunch of leaves and sticks chomping into the night’s blackout. Then, Chiyo’s voice broke through, soft with a hard center, a rasping whisper. “Where are you going?”
Cold sweat sprung out of his skin, and his lungs seized. He turned around. Trailing far behind her, he could make out Ane’s silhouette against the trees, her arms crossed tightly over her torso, as though she were holding onto her self.
Chiyo brandished the carving knife from dinner. “We still have something we need to do.”
Without warning, she thrust the knife into Jun’s gut. It went in clean and stinging like a syringe before his stomach began to feel like it was licked by flames. Jun’s cry gurgled in his throat as he looked at Ane. She had hidden her face in her hands. Warm wetness dribbled down his shirt as Chiyo continued to drag the knife across his abdomen.
The blade was smooth as it cut through his intestines, and the blood was racing quickly through his veins and flushing out from him. He thought he heard Ane crying in the distance but his hearing was cloudy, like there were cotton balls stuffed into his ears. He looked down and saw Chiyo’s two hands still holding the hilt, though she was stained red up to her forearms. Blood was pooling around Jun’s feet, sticking between his toes, mixing with the earth, and gleaming in the moonlight.
“Are you afraid?” Chiyo asked.
“I thought you were such a nice girl,” Jun said.
Chiyo continued as though she didn’t hear him, her voice quizzical, “What are you feeling?”
Jun clamped his jaw and shook his head furiously.
“Answer me! What does it feel like?” Chiyo said with force, shoving the blade deeper. Jun stumbled backwards and collapsed onto the ground. “Do you see anything? Do you hear anything? Tell me now, before you go.”
A boreal-like coldness began eating its way up from the heels of his feet. He lay on the potholed, friable soil and realized he couldn’t move his legs.
Faintly at first, then gradually louder, Jun could hear tens of thousands of voices singing and his heart slowed. He, too, had been granted infinite time, infinite space, to exist, substance removed of structure. Far away, he could still hear Chiyo’s voice. “Is there something beyond death?"
Urgent, insistent, endlessly sad, her voice began pleading with him, “Please say something, Jun. I have waited so long to know.”
Though his eyes were still open, they could no longer see. Jun drew a short breath, smiled, and lied, “There is nothing.”