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The Void

 


The Void

 

An opaque mist soaked the valley, making secrets of the hill tops. Rocky mountain ridges, old-growth forests, and the slow-flowing green river at the valley’s bottom merged into a single white void of rolling clouds of fog. The morning rays offered slight illumination to the autumn colors of the maple and ginkgo trees, which glowed like a dim firelight in a fleeting world. High up in the white, just below the ridge of an out of the way mountain, was a vertical strip of forested land; surveyed, contracted, used, and forgotten. It had been logged months before and was now a wasteland of freshly cut tree stumps, piles of branches, tangled roots, and rejected logs. On a clear day, it could be seen from a riverside village in the valley below as a deep cut, a scar on the face of the otherwise green mountain.


                Invisible from a distance, a man named Saburo was working alone in that unseen pocket of land on this foggy fall morning. Officially, he was planting cedar trees. He was a hired hand for a local forestry company who gave him their left over jobs, small contracts that barely put food on the table. Unofficially, he was searching for shikimi and sakaki to sell to flower shops who would resell for funerals or to families visiting a grave. Saburo was a hanakiri, a “flower-cutter.” It was a job no one wanted but when loved ones died and their families wished to have a funeral flush with mountain flowers, only the hanakiri was able to find the right species. That helped him to cover rent.


                On this dreary morning, Saburo wore a blue flannel button up shirt, loose-fitting pants, and low-cut rubber boots. He was sticky and dripping wet with a mixture of sweat and mist as he laboured. His body was set in a familiar rhythm. Standing upright, his shovel hand whipped up and, as he bent over, he’d slam it down into the stony floor. His left hand would then drop wrist deep in soil, planting a tree seedling. His breathing was the meter of his planting rhythm, always exhaling on the shovel strike. Every now and then, the steel tip of the shovel would scrape or collide with hidden rocks and send unnatural, metallic echoes into the pale air.


                Saburo was in his late forties and without family. His mother had died during the attempted birth of his would-be little sister when he was five years old. His father committed suicide shortly afterwards. From then on, Saburo was raised by his elderly grandparents in their rundown countryside home, but they were old and had both died when he was a teenager. He had loved once, but that once gave him enough reason to take refuge in the mountains and never look back.


  Yuriko was her name. She was Saburo’s first and last honest lover. She was an Elementary school teacher. She wasn’t as attractive as the women in his magazines, but she accepted him and loved him. That fact alone made her more attractive than any of the images on the convenience store shelf. Saburo saw her for the first time at the annual fireworks during the Festival of the Dead in August. He often reminisced as he laboured away in the mountains about the way that the multicolored fireworks lit up her face when they first met.  She also felt sparks igniting with him on first glance. It was her “good evening” that began their conversation. Soon after, they met regularly for mountain walks and trips to natural spring hot spas in the area. His inexperience in love led to a few awkward moments at first, but he learned quickly and was, within a few short months, considering a proposal. She thought he was cute and was attracted to his wildness as a man of the mountain. 


                Saburo knew he had to make an exceptional impression on her family before he could ask for her hand in marriage, but Yuriko’s father, a respected administrator for the local municipality, forbade their future together before Saburo even had a chance. Without warning, Yuriko stopped returning phone calls and started making excuses when she did answer. Saburo was heartbroken because he knew in his soul that she loved him. His worst fears were realized when his co-workers mockingly disclosed to him the gossip of the town: Yuriko’s father simply didn’t want a “four-legged man”—a lowly flower-cutter—to debase his daughter’s status or that of the family. Saburo was devastated. There was no way he could be with Yuriko without her father’s approval and he knew that he couldn’t be happy without her. He was locked into his trade because there were few work opportunities available in this rapidly depopulating rural area. Forestry was the only legitimate industry he could work in and he could never get enough work to survive. Foraging for mountain flowers, which was illegal when done on someone else’s property, was the only way he could supplement his income to survive.   


                On a windy spring day of the year of their break up, Saburo watched the cherry blossoms scatter in the breeze and disappear into the mountainside. Saburo’s hope at love in life dissolved like the shadows of the falling petals. He felt his forlorn destiny drawn into the mountain. From then on, he kept people but women especially at a distance, promising himself to sever any developing emotional attachments before they could take root. His perception of women and humanity in general became base as his sadness grew into anger, then incurable resentment. Mountain work was Saburo’s escape from humanity. As alone as he was, the mountains accepted him for who he was. He thought of nothing but the task and the more his mind began to wander, the harder he worked to maintain focus.


                A few hours into his tree planting on this particular foggy morning, he was overcome with a thirsting desire to smoke, a vice that developed from his heartbreak. He sat on the nearest tree stump and pulled out a quarter-filled pack from his shirt pocket. Swatting clouds of black flies away with his free hand, he searched the depths of his pants pocket for a lighter, pulled it out and flicked the flint, but it was too moist. As he shook it and flicked sparks, a distant but piercing scream disrupted the stillness. The flapping wings of startled birds erupted as a great vibration, then faded.


                Saburo sat on the stump dumbfounded with the unlit cigarette hanging loosely from his lips, his heart pounding. The scream sounded human, but what human would be up in the mountain besides himself on this sun-blotted morning? The cigarette fell from his lips as he stood up and marched with concern towards the source of the death cry, shovel in hand.


                He marched over the knotted tangle of unearthed roots and fallen limbs until reaching the edge of the cutting block, where the fir trees filled the mist with their sweet scent. The forest he faced felt darkened by the mysterious scream. He entered cautiously and with a hunter’s gait. Aware of the tricks of the mountain, Saburo marked his path as he penetrated the forest with bright red tape that he tied onto branches. After ten to fifteen minutes, he heard a panting in the distance. It sounded like a wild boar. He called out to frighten it. He heard the sound of something startled, scrambling through foliage. Saburo gripped his shovel tighter and continued to walk with soft steps.


                The panting sounded heavier and accompanied by a soft moaning. Within a few adrenaline-fed heartbeats, Saburo could see, just barely out of view, a body on the forest floor. The matted grey coat and pink human-like hands revealed to him that it was a wounded monkey, a macaque. It appeared unconscious. Its mouth was crusted with vomit and its eyes rolled back. When Saburo poked the ribs of the red-faced macaque with his shovel’s end, there was motion in the bushes. There, as if afloat on the buoyancy of the fog, were five curious red faces with big frightened eyes. Their expressions resembled confused children.


                Saburo realized that he had expended the purpose of his short journey to the source of the sound. A dead monkey was all, though he was surprised by the similar pitch of the monkey’s death cry to a human voice. Saburo stepped backwards to return to duty and let nature take its course when he spotted a sakaki bush. Yatta! (“Yes!”) he thought as he knelt down to snip some of its branches. Just as he clenched a handful of sakaki, the grass near his feet flashed with movement and an electric pain surged through his calf muscle. He released a terrified scream into the still forest. Flocks of birds lifted off the trees once more fluttering into the void. His calf and foot went numb and he fell forward. Then, just as he placed his left hand on the wet ground for support, he was struck once more with a force like lightening, this time, in his forearm. He jumped up and managed to escape with a desperate crawl through the foliage. He looked back and saw the regions deadliest serpent slither into the ferns. The fallen monkey’s breathing stiffened into gasps and then, exhaled what life struggled to remain within. Its right leg muscles twitched into kicks before fully succumbing to the tight grip of death. The other monkeys observed their next of kin as it passed. Poking him and hitting him with branches. They appeared distraught.


                Feeling dizzy from the stinging venom, Saburo cursed the open air, Kuso! (“Shit!”). He breathed deeply for a moment with eyes closed to conquer his panic. He then stood up slowly, using his shovel as a makeshift cane. He saw the troop encircling their fallen brother, calling to him in sad sounding grunts. Envious and still with a handful of sakaki, Saburo descended into the void alone.

 

Shayne Dahl


Shayne A. P. Dahl received his BA in religious studies from the University of Lethbridge (2007), his MA in anthropology at Trent University (2012), and his PhD in anthropology from the University of Toronto (2019). He has published in a number of academic journals such as Anthropology of Consciousness, Japanese Journal of Religious Studies, Japan Review, Reviews in Anthropology, Journal of Religion in Japan, and Anthropological Forum. He has written on various topics related to the anthropological study of sacrifice, dreams, history, and mountain asceticism pertaining contemporary Japan as well as the Blackfoot confederacy in southwestern Alberta, Canada. In an effort to make anthropology more accessible (and interesting) for the general public, he has decided to try his hand at creative writing, beginning with short stories, that contain insights drawn from his research experiences and the ethnographic record. Under the tutelage of Dr. Robert Runte and Adria Laycraft of Essential Edits, Shayne has begun his transition to the world of creative writing


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1 Comments

  1. like an out of body experience.. fine work

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