Oshima climbs into his Miata and flips on the headlights. As he steps on the gas, pebbles shoot up, scraping the bottom of the car. He backs up, then turns around to face the road. He raises his hand in farewell, and I do the same. The brake lights are swallowed up in darkness, the sound of the engine fading. Then it’s completely gone, and the silence of the forest takes over. I go back into the cabin and bolt the door shut from the inside.
Like it was lying in wait for me, silence wraps itself around me tightly once I’m alone. The night air’s so cold it’s hard to believe it’s early summer, but it’s too late to light the stove. All I can do is crawl inside my sleeping bag and get some sleep. My mind’s a little spacey from lack of sleep and my muscles ache from bouncing around in the car so long. I turn down the light on the lamp. The room dims as the shadows that fill the corners grow more intense. It’s too much trouble to change clothes, so I crawl into my sleeping bag with my jeans and yacht jacket on. I close my eyes but can’t fall asleep, my body dying for rest while my mind’s wide awake. A bird occasionally breaks the silence of the night. Other sounds filter in too, things I can’t identify. Something trampling on fallen leaves. Something heavy rustling the branches. The sound of a deep breath. The occasional ominous creak of floorboards on the porch. They sound like they’re right near the cabin, an army of invisible creatures that populates the darkness and has me surrounded. And I feel like somebody’s watching me. My skin smarts with the sense of eyes boring in on me. My heart beats out a hollow thump. Several times from inside the sleeping bag I open my eyes a slit and peer around the dimly lit room just to be sure no one else is there. The front door’s bolted with that heavy bolt, and the thick curtains at the windows are shut tight. So I’m okay, I tell myself. I’m alone in this room and no one’s gazing in at me through the windows. But still I can’t shake the feeling that I’m being watched. My throat’s parched and I’m having trouble breathing. I need to drink some water, but if I do I’ll need to take a leak and that means going outside. I have to hold on till morning. Curled up in my sleeping bag, I give a small shake of my head. Are you kidding me? You’re like some scared little kid, afraid of the silence and the dark. You’re not going to wimp out on me now, are you? You always thought you were tough, but when it hits the fan, you look like you’re about to burst into tears. Look at you–I bet you’re going to wet your bed! Ignoring him, I close my eyes tight, zip the bag up to just below my nose, and clear my head. I don’t open my eyes for anything–not when I hear an owl hooting, not when something lands with a thud on the ground outside. Not even when I sense something moving inside the cabin. I’m being tested, I tell myself. Oshima spent a few days alone here too, when he was about my age. He must have been scared out of his wits, same as me. That’s what he meant by solitude comes in different varieties. Oshima knows exactly how I feel being here alone at night, because he’s gone through the same thing, and felt the same emotions. This thought helps me relax a little. I feel like I can trace the shadows of the past that linger here and imagine myself as a part of it. I take a deep breath, and I fall asleep before I know it.
It’s after six a. m. when I wake up. The air is filled with a shower of bird calls. The birds busily flit from branch to branch, calling out to each other in piercing chirps. Their message has none of the deep echo and hidden implications of those the night before. When I pull back the curtains, every bit of last night’s darkness has disappeared from around the cabin. Everything sparkles in a newborn golden glow. I light the stove, boil some mineral water, and make a cup of chamomile tea, then open a box of crackers and have a few with cheese. After that I brush my teeth at the sink and wash my face. I pull on a windbreaker over my yacht jacket and go outside. The morning light pours down through the tall trees onto the open space in front of the cabin, sunbeams everywhere and mist floating like freshly minted souls. The pure clean air pierces my lungs with each breath. I sit down on a porch step and watch the birds scudding from tree to tree, listening to their calls. Most of them move about in pairs, constantly checking to see where their partner is, screeching out to keep in touch. I follow the sound of the water and find the stream right away, close by. Rocks form a kind of pool where the water flows in, swirling around in a maze of eddies before rushing back out to rejoin the stream. The water is clear and beautiful. I scoop some up to drink–it’s cold and delicious–and then hold my hands in the current. Back at the cabin I cook ham and eggs in the frying pan, make some toast using a metal net, and heat milk in a small pan to wash down my meal. After eating I haul a chair out to the porch, prop my legs up on the railing, and spend the morning reading. Oshima’s bookshelf is crammed full of hundreds of books. Only a few are novels, chiefly classics. Mostly they’re books on philosophy, sociology, history, geography, natural sciences, economics–a huge number of subjects, a random selection of fields. Oshima said he’d hardly attended school at all, so this must have been how he got his education. I pick out a book on the trial of Adolf Eichmann. I have a vague notion of him as a Nazi war criminal, but no special interest in the guy. The book just happens to catch my eye, is all. I start to read and learn how this totally practical lieutenant colonel in the SS, with his metal-frame glasses and thinning hair, was, soon after the war started, assigned by Nazi headquarters to design a “final solution” for the Jews–extermination, that is–and how he investigated the best ways of actually carrying this out. Apparently it barely crossed his mind to question the morality of what he was doing. All he cared about was how best, in the shortest period of time and for the lowest possible cost, to dispose of the Jews. And we’re talking about eleven million Jews he figured needed to be eliminated in Europe. Eichmann studied how many Jews could be packed into each railroad car, what percentage would die of “natural” causes while being transported, the minimal number of people needed to keep this operation going. The cheapest method of disposing of the dead bodies–burning, or burying, or dissolving them. Seated at his desk Eichmann pored over all these numbers. Once he put it into operation, everything went pretty much according to plan. By the end of the war some six million Jews had been disposed of. Strangely, the guy never felt any remorse. Sitting in court in Tel Aviv, behind bulletproof glass, Eichmann looked like he couldn’t for the life of him figure out why he was being tried, or why the eyes of the world were upon him. He was just a technician, he insisted, who’d found the most efficient solution to the problem assigned him. Wasn’t he doing just what any good bureaucrat would do? So why was he being singled out and accused? Sitting in the quiet woods with birds chirping all around me, I read the story of this practical guy. In the back of the book there’s a penciled note Oshima had written. His handwriting’s pretty easy to spot: It’s all a question of imagination. Our responsibility begins with the power to imagine. It’s just like Yeats said: In dreams begin responsibilities. Flip this around and you could say that where there’s no power to imagine, no responsibility can arise. Just like we see with Eichmann. I try to picture Oshima sitting in this chair, his usual nicely sharpened pencil in hand, looking back over this book and writing down his impressions. In dreams begin responsibilities. The words hit home. I shut the book, lay it on my lap, and think about my own responsibility. I can’t help it. My white T-shirt was soaked in fresh blood. I washed the blood away with these hands, so much blood the sink turned red. I imagine I’ll be held responsible for all that blood. I try to picture myself being tried in a court, my accusers doggedly trying to pin the blame on me, angrily pointing fingers and glaring at me. I insist that you can’t be held responsible for something you can’t remember. I don’t have any idea what really took place, I tell them. But they counter with this: “It doesn’t matter whose dream it started out as, you have the same dream. So you’re responsible for whatever happens in the dream. That dream crept inside you, right down the dark corridor of your soul.” Just like Adolf Eichmann, caught up–whether he liked it or not–in the twisted dreams of a man named Hitler. I put the book down, stand up, and stretch. I have been reading for a long time and need to get up and move around a little. I take the aluminum pail by the sink and go to the stream to fill it. Next I take an armload of firewood from the shed in back and set it by the stove. In a corner of the porch there’s a faded nylon rope for hanging out laundry. I pull out my damp clothes from my backpack, smooth out all the wrinkles, and hang them up to dry. I take everything else out of the pack and lay it out on the bed, then sit down at the desk and fill in my diary for the last few days. I use a pen with a fine tip and write down in small letters everything that’s happened to me. I don’t know how long I’ll remember all the details, so I better get them down as fast as I can. I search my memory. How I lost consciousness and came to in the woods behind a shrine. The darkness and my blood-soaked shirt. Phoning Sakura, spending the night at her place. How we talked, how she did that to me. She’d said, I don’t get it, you don’t have to tell me that! Why don’t you just go ahead and imagine what you want? You don’t need my permission. How can I know what’s in your head? But she got it wrong. What I imagine is perhaps very important. For the entire world. That afternoon I decide to go into the woods. Oshima said that going too far into the forest is dangerous. Always keep the cabin in sight, he warned me. But I’ll probably be here for a few days, and I should know something about this massive wall of a forest that surrounds me. Better to know a little, I figure, than nothing at all. Empty-handed, I say good-bye to the sunny lot and step into the gloomy sea of trees. There’s a kind of rough path trod down through the forest, mostly following the lay of the land, but improved here and there with a few flat rocks laid down like stepping stones. Places prone to erosion have been neatly buttressed with wooden planks, so that even if the weeds grow over it you can still follow the path. Maybe Oshima’s brother worked on the path little by little each time he stayed here. I follow it into the woods, uphill at first, then it goes down and skirts around a high boulder before climbing up again. Overall it’s mostly uphill, but not a very tough climb. Tall trees line both sides, with dull-colored trunks, thick branches growing out every which way, dense leaves overhead. The ground is covered with undergrowth and ferns that have managed to soak up as much of the faint light as they can. In places where the sun doesn’t reach, moss has silently covered the rocks. Like someone excitedly relating a story only to find the words petering out, the path gets narrower the farther I go, the undergrowth taking over. Beyond a certain point it’s hard to tell if it’s really a path or something that just vaguely resembles one. Eventually it’s completely swallowed up in a sea of ferns. Maybe the path does continue up ahead, but I decide to save that exploration for next time. I don’t have on the right kind of clothes and haven’t really prepared for that. I come to a halt and turn around. Suddenly nothing looks familiar, there’s nothing I can cling to. A tangle of tree trunks ominously blocks the view. It’s dim, the air filled with a stagnant green, and not a bird to be heard. I’m suddenly covered in goosebumps, but there’s nothing to worry about, I tell myself. The path is right over there. As long as I don’t lose sight of that I’ll be able to return to the light. Eyes glued to the ground, I carefully retrace my steps and, after much longer than it took me to get here, finally arrive back in front of the cabin. The lot is filled with bright, early-summer sunlight, and the clear calls of birds echo as they search for food. Everything’s exactly the same as I left it. Or at least I think it is. The chair I was sitting on is still on the porch. The book I was reading is facedown like I left it. Now I know exactly how dangerous the forest can be. And I hope I never forget it. Just like Crow said, the world’s filled with things I don’t know about. All the plants and trees there, for instance. I’d never imagined that trees could be so weird and unearthly. I mean, the only plants I’ve ever really seen or touched till now are the city kind–neatly trimmed and cared-for bushes and trees. But the ones here–the ones living here–are totally different. They have a physical power, their breath grazing any humans who might chance by, their gaze zeroing in on the intruder like they’ve spotted their prey. Like they have some dark, prehistoric, magical powers. Like deep-sea creatures rule the ocean depths, in the forest trees reign supreme. If it wanted to, the forest could reject me–or swallow me up whole. A healthy amount of fear and respect might be a good idea. I go back to the cabin, take my compass out of my backpack, and check that the needle’s showing north. It might come in handy sometime, so I slip it in my pocket. I go sit on the porch, gaze at the woods, and listen to Cream and Duke Ellington on my Walkman, songs I recorded off a library’s collection of CDs. I play “Crossroads” a couple of times. Music helps me calm down, but I can’t listen for very long. There’s no electricity here and no way to recharge the batteries, so once my extra batteries are dead the music’s over for good. I work out a bit before dinner. Push-ups, sit-ups, squats, handstands, different kinds of stretching exercises–a routine that keeps you in shape without any machines or equipment. Kind of boring, I’ll admit, but you get a decent workout. A trainer at the gym taught me the routine. “Prisoners in solitary confinement like this best,” he explained, calling it the “world’s loneliest workout routine.” I focus on what I’m doing and go through a couple of sets, my shirt getting sweaty in the process. After a simple dinner I go out on the porch and gaze up at the stars twinkling above, the random scattering of millions of stars. Even in a planetarium you wouldn’t find this many. Some of them look really big and distinct, like if you reached your hand out intently you could touch them. The whole thing is breathtaking. Not just beautiful, though–the stars are like the trees in the forest, alive and breathing. And they’re watching me. What I’ve done up till now, what I’m going to do– they know it all. Nothing gets past their watchful eyes. As I sit there under the shining night sky, again a violent fear takes hold of me. My heart’s pounding a mile a minute, and I can barely breathe. All these millions of stars looking down on me, and I’ve never given them more than a passing thought before. Not just stars–how many other things haven’t I noticed in the world, things I know nothing about? I suddenly feel helpless, completely powerless. And I know I’ll never outrun that awful feeling. Back inside the cabin, I carefully arrange some firewood in the stove, ball up a few sheets of an old newspaper, light it, and make sure the wood catches fire. In grade school I was sent to camp, and learned how to build a fire. I hated camp, but at least one good thing came out of it, I suppose. I open the damper to let the smoke out. It doesn’t go well at first, but when a piece of kindling catches the fire spreads to the other sticks. I shut the door on the stove and scrape a chair over in front of it, set a lamp nearby, and pick up where I’d left off in the book. Once the fire’s built up a bit I set a kettle of water on top to boil, and after a while the kettle burbles pleasantly. Back to Eichmann. Of course his project didn’t always go according to plan. Conditions at various sites slowed things down. When this happened he acted like a human being–at least a little. He got angry, is what I’m saying. He grew incensed at these uncertain elements that threw his elegant solution into disarray. Trains ran late. Bureaucratic red tape held things up. People in charge were replaced, and relations with their successors didn’t go well. After the collapse of the Russian front, concentration camp guards were sent there to fight. There were heavy snowfalls. Power outages. Not enough poison gas to go around. Rail lines were bombed. Eichmann hated the war itself- -that element of uncertainty that screwed up his plans. At his trial he described all this, no emotion showing on his face. His recall was amazing. His life was entirely made up of these details. At ten I put the book down, brush my teeth, and wash my face. The fire bathes the room in an orange glow, and the pleasant warmth calms my tension and fear. I snuggle into my sleeping bag dressed only in a T-shirt and boxers. Compared to last night I’m able to shut my eyes easily. Thoughts of Sakura cross my mind. “I was thinking how nice it’d be if I was your real sister,” she’d said. None of that tonight. I’ve got to get some sleep. A log topples over in the stove, an owl hoots outside. And I topple down into an indistinct dream. The next day’s the same. Birds wake me up a little after six. I boil some water, make a cup of tea, and have breakfast. Read on the porch, listen to music, go fill up the water pail at the stream. And I walk down the path into the woods, this time carrying my compass, glancing at it every once in a while to get a general idea of where the cabin is. I found a hatchet in the shed and use it to chop simple hatch marks on trees. I clear out some of the underbrush to make the path easier to follow. Just like yesterday the forest is dark and deep, the towering trees forming a thick wall on both sides. Something of the forest is hiding there, in the darkness between the trees, like some 3-D painting of an animal, watching my every move. But the fear that made me shudder isn’t there anymore. I’ve made my own rules, and by following them I won’t get lost. At least I hope not. I come to the place where I stopped yesterday and forge on, stepping into the sea of ferns. After a while the path reemerges, and again I’m surrounded by a wall of trees, on whose trunks I hack out some markings as I go. Somewhere in the branches above me a huge bird flaps its wings, but looking up I can’t spot it. My mouth is dry. I walk on for a while and reach a round sort of clearing. Surrounded by tall trees, it looks like the bottom of a gigantic well. Sunlight shoots down through the branches like a spotlight illuminating the ground at my feet. The place feels special, somehow. I sit down in the sunlight and let the faint warmth wash over me, taking out a chocolate bar from my pocket and enjoying the sweet taste. Realizing all over again how important sunlight is to human beings, I appreciate each second of that precious light. The intense loneliness and helplessness I felt under those millions of stars has vanished. But as time passes, the sun’s angle shifts and the light disappears. I stand up and retrace the path back to the cabin. In the afternoon dark clouds suddenly color the sky a mysterious shade and it starts raining hard, pounding the roof and windows of the cabin. I strip naked and run outside, washing my face with soap and scrubbing myself all over. It feels wonderful. In my joy I shut my eyes and shout out meaningless words as the large raindrops strike me on the cheeks, the eyelids, chest, side, penis, legs, and butt–the stinging pain like a religious initiation or something. Along with the pain there’s a feeling of closeness, like for once in my life the world’s treating me fairly. I feel elated, as if all of a sudden I’ve been set free. I face the sky, hands held wide apart, open my mouth wide, and gulp down the falling rain. Back inside the hut, I dry off with a towel, sit down on the bed, and look at my penis–a light-colored, healthy, youthful penis. The head still stings a little from the rain. For a long while I stare at this strange organ that, most of the time, has a mind of its own and contemplates thoughts not shared by my brain. I wonder if Oshima, when he was my age and stayed here, struggled with sexual desire. He must have, but I can’t picture him taking care of business on his own. He’s too detached, too cool for that. “I was different from everybody else,” he’d said. I don’t know what that means, but I’m sure he wasn’t just spouting something off the top of his head. He didn’t say it to be mysterious and coy, either. I consider jerking off but think better of it. Being pummeled by the rain so hard made me feel strangely purified, and I want to hold on to that sensation a while longer. I pull on some boxers, take a few deep breaths, and start doing squats. A hundred squats later I do a hundred sit-ups. I focus on one muscle group at a time. Once my routine’s done, my mind’s clear. The rain’s stopped, the sun’s starting to shine through breaks in the clouds, and the birds have started chirping again. But that calm won’t last long, you know. It’s like beasts that never tire, tracking you everywhere you go. They come out at you deep in the forest. They’re tough, relentless, merciless, untiring, and they never give up. You might control yourself now, and not masturbate, but they’ll get you in the end, as a wet dream. You might dream about raping your sister, your mother. It’s not something you can control. It’s a power beyond you–and all you can do is accept it. You’re afraid of imagination. And even more afraid of dreams. Afraid of the responsibility that begins in dreams. But you have to sleep, and dreams are a part of sleep. When you’re awake you can suppress imagination. But you can’t suppress dreams. I lie down in bed and listen to Prince on my headphones, concentrating on this strangely unceasing music. The batteries run out in the middle of “Little Red Corvette,” the music disappearing like it’s been swallowed up by quicksand. I yank off my headphones and listen. Silence, I discover, is something you can actually hear.