It was cold and the world had disappeared into a restless white. The rocky trail had been consumed by the sudden inches. I'd lost my way hours ago and the numbness that swept through my head and settled in my bones was a very telling sign of the trouble I was in. The world had turned surreal. I felt almost ridiculous being lost on a mountain; theoretically I only needed to head down. And yet, the snow had somehow obliterated direction. Forwards and backwards and left and right were all the same white and gray smears that could be anything from a cabin along the trail to an open freefall to the bottom.
If I were more predisposed to laugh, I would have. Lost somewhere on this doorway between death and the afterlife, where souls are said to wander looking for the chance to pass through to where all souls seek to be. This place so desolate and bare with the snow, even more so than its rocky barren slopes. I had never thought I'd ever end up in Japan. But I was looking for a place where I could let go of the things that had weighed me down for over four years, and that search had ultimately led me here.
Four years ago I was sixteen. That was the year both my parents were killed in a car accident, and I found myself an orphan in the world that was suddenly too big and complicated. The state had given me the option of being declared a liberated adult, but I decided against it because I didn't know the first thing about running my own life. I had money, left in my parents' accounts, even some from their insurance policies, but I didn't know how to manage it, and had no one to guide me. I ended up in the social services system. They had trouble placing me; I was a junior and most families were looking for kids they could love and know for years before they had to part for college. It was partly a blessing, my age, because I found myself in Father Maxwell's orphanage. When I was first told of the place, one of the social workers had joked that Father Maxwell could even be a long lost relative of mine, seeing as how we had the same last names. It was a tactless thing to say to someone who knew he didn't have anyone left. I had immediately resented the place.
But as I got settled in there, it began to feel strangely comfortable, more like a home than a government funded institution. Father Maxwell was especially earnest in helping me adjust; I think he had more sympathy for me than most of the other kids. I had known my parents my entire life; some of the children hadn't even been old enough to feel the loss of something so vital. Sister Helen understood me best in that respect; she had lost a sister in her twenties. That's something you have to live with; life isn't going to take that memory away from you like it does for young children. The Father and Sister both took out a lot of their time to help me prepare for a new life: teaching me to drive, balancing a budget, tackling apartment ads and college applications. There were many nights they'd sit across from me at the kitchen table with papers everywhere, trying to work out SAT prep questions, alternately scratching their heads and trying to explain trigonometry. It was times like those that I almost forgot the accident had ever happened.
I graduated high school with a reasonably good transcript, and had been accepted to a few universities. It was a hard goodbye when I left the orphanage. I wasn't ever going to live there again, and the entire house had turned out to wave me off. I promised to keep in touch and come back during the longer breaks. They only smiled and waved harder as I loaded up my beat up car and drove off.
When I arrived on campus, it was a whole new experience. Always busy, making new friends, adjusting to being on my own again. Though I had promised, I never made it back to the orphanage, always sidetracked by trips with friends and summer classes. I wondered sometimes if everyone would forget me, but every now and then I'd get a letter from the Father, telling me the goings on of the children and the community. It was a caring gesture; it was something I could see my parents doing, had they lived.
I didn't cry for my parents after the accident. I think I had been too afraid to try those first few months. There was no telling what I'd do if I let myself feel the reality of the situation. And afterwards, when the loss had become less acute, it was just easier to ignore the fullness of the grief than surrendering to it. If I could just keep it on the edge of consciousness, push it back to that place where I only see it now and then out of the corner of my eye, then I could handle each new day without them. But they festered inside, locked away in the memories both good and bad that I swore I would never think about again. I silenced them for years.
It had reached a point at the end of sophomore year that I realized I couldn't avoid them forever. The pressure had been building for a while. That gut clenching fear of inevitability had been coming more frequently. I reluctantly began searching for an outlet, a means to rid myself of the strain of always trying to forget. Religion was an obvious, but inadequate answer.
I've never been much in the way of a religious person; it was one thing that neither the Father nor the Sister had strove to persuade me to embrace. I think they knew I wouldn't have appreciated their good intentions so soon after the accident. God itself just seemed to be such a paradox, both cruel and benevolent, whose intentions were unknowable, and yet laid out in inflexible dogma. And churches were always oppressive to me, too ornamental with artifacts and symbols that it felt like they were more for the purpose of weighing you down than for actually soothing. I could never believe in it all. I couldn't understand it, the faith, the way things could possibly be good, that one could be saved, even in the worst of times.
But I kept hoping to find that good, because if I didn't, I'd never have peace. Whatever that good was, I had never expected it to find me. The summer before junior year I met one of my friends on campus. She had just come back from Japan to attend the funeral of one of her aunts. She didn't volunteer much information about the trip; it really wasn't something I think she wanted to relive. But she did mention visiting Osore-san, the holy mountain that bridged the living and the dead, a place where you could wave goodbye to someone before they passed out of this world. It intrigued me as she described it: frightening, empty, uniformly gray and bleak. And yet she said it was beautiful. There was an apathy to the environment; it didn't sympathize, didn't pity, didn't care. It just stood there as bare as you felt inside and let you unload the things that you had buried inside of you for what seemed like forever. Deep down, I think I had already resolved to go before we even finished our conversation.
I took the next semester off. This mountain Yuko talked about had haunted me through the summer. I read about it, in snatches of free time between classes. It was as she said it was: a wasteland that lay there so unfeeling that I felt the urge to tell it all my secrets. It was exactly what I was looking for, a place that wouldn't distract me from the memories I was determined to face. I almost knew it instinctively that this place would be where I could put my parents to rest. It certainly lived up to its name, ‘Mount Fear'; even looking down at those glossy magazine photos, I was afraid of what I might unbury when I arrived.
I first visited Osore in October, during one of the Taisai festival days. It was crowded, choked with a throng of mourners and sightseers. The temple grounds were full, a steady, nearly liquid push through the gates and down to the main shrine. It was disconcerting, the stifling feel of everyone moving with singular purpose. The temples towered above the people and cast sharp shadows over their heads. Beyond were the paths leading up the mountain and I tried to escape the crowds, to find myself a bit of emptiness to mourn in. But I found myself lost in another river of people, flowing up the slope to the smaller shrines.
Osore wasn't a high mountain, but it could overwhelm you with its desolation. A volcanic past had scoured its sides barren and rocky, an endless slope of bleached, broken stones. Steam vents and bubbling brooks trickled down to natural mineral baths, and the air burned with the smell of sulfur. A crater lake took prominent place upon the landscape, uninhabited and flanked on one side by the trail upwards. The shores were dotted with pinwheels to mark the death of children, fading wind shorn metallic and paper petals spinning in the chemical winds. Sown among them were mounds of stones and offerings of toys and candies by parents who had made the journey to see their child off into the past tense.
The haphazard heaps of stones affected me the most, such a strange ominous quality of the way they situated themselves across the land like child sized graves. I had read about them beforehand in my guidebook and the story was as chilling as the sight. It's said that the spirits of children haunt the grounds around the lake, toiling through the day, piling up mounds of rocks to serve as stepping-stones to cross the water and reach the afterlife. But every night, the demons come out and scatter the heaps, leaving the children to rebuild day after day. The futility and suffering resonates with those who know the story. People passing by add a stone or two to the mounds to help the children find their peace. I thought of all of my brothers and sisters back at the orphanage just now starting their own adult lives and added five.
Even in the chaos of the crowd, there was something poignant about the trip, the solemn progression up the slope to the various shrines. Immersed in a mob of people, grim faced and grief stricken, I don't think I was ever more alienated in my life. I realized I didn't want to do this here, not in this public outpouring of faceless sorrow. I needed to know that if I let go of my refusal to accept the past, the experience would be singular, because my parents deserved something more than a mass outburst. And yet, in this broken, steaming land, I knew I had found a place where the grief was distilled and not trapped by the heavy walls of cathedrals or the dark colors of stained glass. This was someplace that was unworldly, tinged with the air of belief, but not smothered by it. It felt unrestricted. Beyond that clogged temple at the base of Osore, up on the scarred unstable ground, I could feel that elusive hint of freedom. I could feel some of the open space around me that I wanted to fill with the most shameful and terrible of thoughts—the way I hated them sometimes for leaving, the regret that we had never really talked, even the bitterness of those vacation plans we had made for the summer after high school graduation.
But it was too public at that moment. People around me tending to the Jizo prayer dolls, decorating them in bright colors and prayers. Parents having picnics next to their child's pinwheel. There was no privacy, always in the shadow of someone else's pain. Even looking down from the top, the grounds were blanketed by people in various stages of memory and languishing. It was too busy.
That night, as I got ready for bed, I promised myself that I'd go back when I could be completely alone to meet my demons. I learned the mountain closed in November in preparation for the severe winter, and I filled the intervening days with travel and sightseeing, counting the days until the workers had packed up the decorations and closed off the access road. That day I headed up on foot, with the sky overcast. I had heard there would be snow, but I gave it only a passing consideration, as I was too preoccupied with the first words I was going to say to my parents after four long years.
The snow began to fall as I reached the path by the lake. It was not a misleading snow; it didn't flurry and tease before tumbling from the sky. It started out violent, with wet lashes of ice and sleet, but I thought I had time and stubbornly continued on. It was only an hour later that visibility had disappeared and soon afterwards found myself hopelessly lost.
There's a legend among the local people in those parts. I heard it when I was sightseeing along the Hotokegaura coastline, a stretch of sea-ravaged cliffs that towered above you, looking like ragged walls forced up through the ground. One of the other backpackers in our makeshift tour group was snapping off pictures left and right when he caught me staring out into the sea. It was hypnotizing, the way it groaned in the echoes and how the blue could dominate both land and sky. Mark, who had stopped momentarily in his photographic madness, came up to my side and stared along with me for a moment.
"Have you heard the local legend about this place?" he asked me, his voice lilting with the airy quality of someone more than halfway entranced.
"No," I told him, and it seemed the word lingered in the air around us, until the water retreated back from the sunken boulders and sucked my response away, sloshing back into the sea.
"It's about a boy," he continued, having unwillingly broken the spell that had caught his tongue. "They say it happened hundreds of years back, when the only people in this area were living in a small village along the shore just a little down the coast from here. One day a group of fishermen came by this place and found a boy unconscious in the water, half caught between two sunken rocks. He wasn't moving and the fishermen feared he was dead. One of the men ran into the water and swam out to bring the boy in. The winds were high and the waves were rough that day and the man almost drowned a couple of times, but he managed to reach the boy and bring him back to shore. The boy was young, six or seven and was completely soaked, hair matted down, streams of water running over his face and everything.
He was naked and his skin was pale and ice cold; it was nearly winter at this time. He looked like he was dead, but they were relieved to see he was still breathing. They quickly bundled him up in their clothes and rushed him back to the village hoping the healer could save him. Word of their find spread and all the villagers gathered at the healer's home, hoping it wasn't their son. But no one recognized the boy and his appearance was a mystery. The healer couldn't do much but keep the boy wrapped up in blankets and near a fire. It was a couple of days later that the boy woke up, and everyone wanted to know what had happened to him and where he had come from. But he didn't know what had happened or who he was, or anything for that matter. The people couldn't make any sense of it; there was no other village nearby and he could not have survived the icy sea for any long distance. Eventually the healer decided to welcome the boy into his family, and soon grew to love him as a son. The years passed and the boy grew into a strong young man. He ran faster than the birds flew, was stronger than three full-grown men, and he swam like the fish. He was not afraid of the water, as some villagers thought he might be. He spent everyday in the sea or by the shore or on one of the fishing boats. Some of the people said he knew the ocean better than the oldest fishermen.
One winter though, the sea was unusually rough and the villagers were worried that the waves would rise up and sweep away their homes. They spent nights moving and shaping the sand into walls to break the waves, but every morning their efforts had been washed away by the tide. One day a fisherman came running into the village. He said he had seen a giant wave out in the sea and it was heading towards them. Everyone panicked and rushed through their houses trying to salvage what was most important before fleeing inland. But the boy from the sea, he wasn't afraid. The healer asked him over and over to help pack up the more important herbs from their house, but the boy just kept looking towards the shore. Just as the healer had gathered his most prized possessions and went to fetch his adopted son, he saw the boy sprinting out the door and towards the sea. The man dropped everything he had loaded onto his back and ran after his son in fear. He lagged behind his son but kept him in his sight. The boy was running and removing his clothes, a line of shirts and pants heading straight for the rocks. By the time the healer had reached the shore, the boy was naked and running along one of the narrow strips of rock jutting into the sea. The healer was shouting from the beach, pleading with the boy to come back. The tidal wave was growing larger on the horizon and roaring towards the coast. But the boy kept running and when he reached the end of the rock, he dove right into the angry water. The healer was horrified and he scrambled desperately onto the rock, shouting for his son to come back. But the boy didn't come up; there was no sign of him in the deep blue waters. The healer did not give up and shouted and pleaded until his voice was no more. And that was when he heard the silence around him. The churning of the sea had stopped, and the water was again lapping gently at the sand. When he looked out into the ocean, the tsunami had disappeared entirely.
The village mourned the loss of the boy when the healer had come back and brokenheartedly told everyone what had happened. Many of them believed the boy had sacrificed himself to somehow save their homes. Others said that he had been born from the sea, and it had sent the tsunami to finally call him home. To this day, some of the villagers nearby still come down here when the weather's bad and the seas are tumultuous, hoping to see a boy rise from the frothy waves and rejoin his adopted father's spirit."
Mark finished with a pregnant silence and trained his eyes on the placid sea again. "So damn blue," he whispered, more to the water than himself.
I nodded, half aware of his comment, half lost in the fantasy that he had painted in my head. I later learned he was an author researching folklore for inspiration. It made much more sense now how his words stuck with me through the coming weeks. There were nights, looking out of the window of some small inn, when I could almost feel the scene around me, with the terrible panic of the village, and the boy, naked and strong diving into the water, and his father screaming from the shore as the waves crashed and rumbled around him. It always made me shiver when I thought of that coastline, with those carved cliffs and the dark blue water. Sometimes I could even see the boy coming out of the ocean, the water sliding down his torso and arms and the sea seething around him, as if unwilling to let him go again.
I could even pretend I was that boy, lost in the blizzard on Osore. The snow that weighed me down, clinging to the fabric of my windbreaker, and the unobstructed sound of nature breaking open the skies and letting loose, roaring around me like the sea. I trudged on, imagining I was swimming to the ocean floor, with the cold hissing through my skin and the darkness clouding my sight. And before me was another gray smudge and I went towards it half aware of the danger. If it was salvation or damnation, it didn't matter, only that I reached it, because this was a journey I needed to finish.
The shape grew darker and crisper until, partly through the veil of white, emerged a figure that I knew had just risen from the depths of the sea. He was naked, standing half hidden by our slight distance and the blizzard in between. He stared at me as I stared at him, and we both moved closer. Water trailed over his skin, across the planes of his chest, down his flanks and arms. His eyes, I realized when we were only a foot apart, were disturbingly blue. He was there to end my journey, I knew, and I wondered if he was planning to take me home with him into the sea. He didn't speak, only watched me, and I found it amazing that he had come back after hundreds of years just to lead me home. And his eyes, they were so damned blue…
I woke up by degrees, with the gradual consciousness of rustling and of pop-crackling in my ears. There was a warmth around me; it bordered on hot and tingled all along the tips of my fingers and feet. They throbbed with a strange beat of their own, independent of my heart. I was disoriented, unaware of time, unaware of identity. I opened my eyes slowly, still half seeing the disjointed memories hanging on the last threads of sleep. The boy from the sea lingered too, and reluctantly faded as the light bleached him away.
I was certainly in one of the small rest cabins along the trail. A single cozy room, lined with bamboo mats and a small low table on my right for eating. Portable appliances lined one of the small shelves near the door, and I turned to face the heat source above my head, a sizzling fire in a small wood stove. The faint glow of orange gave off a tremendous amount of heat and I felt the humidity underneath my covers, and the way my clothes were heavy with sweat. I grimaced slightly at the dampness and pushed back the blankets, sitting up to dry in front of the dying fire.
Rustling brought my attention to the lump in an undiscovered corner of the room, under the frosted glass of the sole window. I trailed the contours of the dark sheet, up the folded legs and the curled back to the face, and then up to the eyes that were watching me back. It was a familiar face, and the dark blue eyes brought an eerie sense of agelessness. I didn't remember how I had ended up in the small hut; there was only the biting winds and wet clumping snow. But the implication was clear; I had been found and brought out of the blizzard by this boy watching me with an unreadable blankness. "Eigo o hanashimasu ka?" I hazarded, from my small list of guidebook phrases.
"Yes." And the word was as uninflected and natural as I would have spoken it.
"Yes." He closed his eyes and stretched, the sheet drawing taught across his long legs and down his chest. He had on a heavy coat and gloves and I realized belatedly that he must have given me his sleeping bag.
"You really saved my life out there. Thanks." I shivered despite the roasting heat at the thought of lying frozen out there on the mountain.
He sat up and shook his head dismissively while running fingers through tangled hair. "How are you feeling?"
The skin of my back felt like it was on fire under the fabric of my sweater and there was a soreness in my limbs, but I welcomed the feeling, anything but the icy numbness. "Much better. My name's Duo by the way. Duo Maxwell." I stuck out my hand, and he reluctantly crawled forward to shake it.
I was beginning to peg him for one of those strong silent types. We sat without talking for a bit with only the fire crackling intermittently. We watched each other. It was strange; it wasn't a thing you did often—really sit and stare at someone. Despite his brown hair and blue eyes, he could have belonged in Japan; it was something in the face I think. "Are you Japanese?"
"Part." And it was the end of the discussion. It was slight, but he had grimaced at the admission and turned his eyes away from mine, avoiding me.
I let the matter drop and turned back to face the fire, which was no longer lit, instead smoldering away the last traces of heat. "Is there more wood?"
"Only for tonight."
"Great." I shifted closer to the fading warmth and willed the ashes to burn once more. Freezing again was an unappealing thought. "There goes my hot shower," I joked, trying to distract my unpleasant memories.
"There's an onsen close by," was the reply. "A hot spring," he added in afterthought at my silence. "I could show you the way."
"Thanks," I said to his back. He was staring out the window, into the overcast skies. "Now would be good, if it's not snowing."
"No; it's stopped." He grabbed a towel off the floor and opened the door. "You can use my towel."
I took it gratefully and reluctantly joined him at the door. It must have snowed nearly a foot; it came up to just under my knees as I followed him into the cold. The view was as barren as the exposed rocks had been; an entire landscape in one color, faceless, identity-less.
The mineral bath was in a small shed to my surprise. I had envisioned some snow bound hole in the ground, directly exposed to the freezing drafts. The inside of the hut wasn't particularly warm, but it kept out the more bitter winds. Most of the space was taken up by a square wooden hole in the center of the floor. Heero turned a metal wheel by the side of the door and something rumbled underneath the wooden boards. Steaming water came rushing into the tub. The smell of sulfur was strong, but not overpowering. He let the water reach three quarters full before turning the wheel again and stopping the flow. "The water's hot," he said by way of explanation as he picked up a plastic bucket and headed back outdoors. I followed and watched him scoop a pail full of snow. "They shut off the cold water pipes. You can use the snow to bring the temperature down," as he dumped it into the tub.
It was a simple but clever idea I thought as I helped him bring snow into the shed. When the temperature was just hot enough to soothe but not burn, he dropped the bucket into its corner and briefly explained the directions back to the cabin. I nodded once or twice, with the pretense of understanding because he looked uncomfortable saying so much at one time. Secretly I vowed to just follow his footprints back.
The water was hot and comfortably deep enough to lap at my chin when I sat down on the underwater bench. I let the heat work its way into my muscles and sagged against the rim, running through yesterday's garbled memories, and what I could make out of Heero. I had to concede half an hour later that I had little information on both subjects. The only thing I could figure out about Heero was that I was glad I had met him, and it was more than him saving my life. There was something intense and evocative about his presence. Still rivers run deep as they say. My curiosity was strong about him too. Here he was, trespassing as I was on the mountain alone, living out of a cabin. Why?
The afternoon had me preoccupied with the recurring urge to find out more about him. We had less than a handful of words between us, even through lunch. He had tossed me a protein bar without a word, and I had thanked him. I wanted to make desultory conversation, to fill up the space between us, but stopped myself. It'd have only made him uncomfortable. But I still wanted to know about him. It was an extremely personal question on my mind, why he was here on Osore-san. I understood the invasion of privacy involved if I dared to ask the question. For all my talkativeness, I've always drawn the line at telling people about my past. There were some things I couldn't even admit to myself much less complete strangers. But the way Heero looked so lost sometimes, taking bites out his protein bar and the way he would just stop chewing and fade out of reality for a moment or two. Even being near him you knew; the air around him had a heaviness to it. His silence was solemn and uncomfortable, like a wild animal prowling before an attack. I was afraid to provoke it.
The sky was dark when I caught him watching the world with closed eyes again. Shadows from the newly lit fire sliced odd angles and lines across his face. The yellows flickered in his eyes as he sat in front of the stove and every now and then moved his lips in silent conversation. I could stand it no longer. "Heero?" He turned his head to me, still with his mind in another time. "Heero?"
This time the film cleared. His shoulders straightened to attention, and whatever openness he had had on his face disappeared behind a wary look. "Yes?"
Despite all the time it had been taking up my thoughts, I didn't know how to phrase the question exactly. How did one make such a personal question polite? "I don't want to pry…" I started, and trailed off because I think he had begun to catch onto my gist. He stiffened up even more, back rigid and eyes trained on the dancing fire. "…But I was wondering why you're here," I finished lamely, somewhat afraid that I had crossed a line.
There was no answer; I hadn't expected one. The silence that followed was cold and demanding, as if the very air wanted a response, words, an explanation; it was a vacuum that needed to be filled with sounds and secrets and emotions. It intensified in the silence and rose to a fever pitch, so much that my palms were damp with anticipation, and my own admissions and confessions were packed tight in my throat. It felt like he had asked me the question, and not the other way around. It only takes a small leak to sink a ship. "I'm here…" I started involuntarily. It croaked out and was half unintelligible, but it had the power to draw his eyes away from his thoughts and fix them on me. I found myself remembering Mark's story as I met his lugubriously compelling eyes. Just like the deep waters of the thrashing sea. I forced out the rest of my sentence, and under that sad gaze, the next one after that, and then the one after that. By the time the fire had begun to really consume the log, I'd told him the very things I had refused to tell anyone else.
Even with all the emotional baggage I piled at our feet, he kept strangely quiet; no remarks, no compassion, almost like no real interest. I felt better than I had in a while, the catharsis of saying things that were not replied to with sympathetic responses. I stopped talking when I reached the point where I had decided to come to Osore. I didn't go on past there; those were private emotions that I could only share with my parents. We relapsed and sat in contemplative silence again. For a while there was stillness, until he sighed and moved closer to me and began to speak in a low, calm voice. It was a familiar story, but it took on a new pathos in his monotonic, controlled voice, and a new rawness when he roughened the occasional word.
He had lost his parents early on in life. His mother had split when times had gotten too tough. His father had died soon afterwards from a heart condition. He was raised from the age of four by his grandfather, who had just died the week before. There was this awed, wistfully heartrending quality his voice took on when he talked about the man. I can still remember the way his soft respect made my skin prickle.
"What was his name?" I had asked in as low a voice as I could manage without whispering.
Heero's cheek twitched, and he shot me a slightly amused look. "You wouldn't be able to pronounce it."
I laughed, comfortably and freely in the knowledge that my Japanese accent was non-existent. But I felt, along with it, there was a privacy issue behind his answer. I hadn't told him my parents' names; it was something I wanted to cherish to myself. I could easily see him doing the same. I decided to give him an out. "What's the first letter then?"
He gave it some thought. "J," he said and I couldn't tell if it was the truth or not.
He continued on, obviously lost in his own running thoughts, jumping from one topic to another. The way J used to speak of Japan, how he missed his native country and vowed to return one day. How J had taught Heero everything he knew about machines. Even the day that he had woken up to find J dead in bed. For all the tragedy of his early childhood, I began to suspect that Heero had been far enough away from death and loss that that morning had been more than traumatic, maybe even devastating. The scene was obviously foremost in his thoughts as he spent a long time describing the smallest details, down to the ticking clock on the nightstand and the ratty red and white checked robe thrown carelessly over the back of a chair.
The end of his story took on a new tone. It had a fire to it, a power, a resolve. He had buried J back home, but was determined to bring part of him back to Japan. It was his mission. It was here that he broke off from the story and grabbed his bag, rifling through it until he found a bundle wrapped up in a scarf. He treated it with reverence as he picked open the folds of the fabric with careful movements. The object shone under the orange glow of the fire. It was a pair of glasses, with thick round lenses and joined by a tape-thickened bridge. He picked it up with his fingers, always careful to avoid the lenses. It was precious to him. He showed it to me, his demeanor closer to actual enthusiasm than I had thought possible for him. I looked it over solemnly and he could have left his entire story untold and I still would've known his sorrow just seeing the glasses held so gently in his fingertips.
There wasn't much to say after he showed the glasses to me. I think sometime while I was staring at it, he must have realized how unguarded he had been with a stranger. He quietly repacked the item and continued the story. He talked about when he had found out about this place in a travel book, about how he had resolved to wait for the site to close and then hike up here to camp out for a while and set up a shrine for J. His voice had dropped back down to a bland tone and he ended the memory stiffly and awkwardly. I could see the sad truth on his face. He was suddenly alone too, like I was four years ago. I meant to lay a comforting hand on his shoulder, but he had turned towards me and my arm hung uncertain between us. He must have misinterpreted my intentions, and leaned in to hug me.
That caught me off balance more than anything else. He didn't seem like the type; neither was I. It lasted a while, and it was comforting. Neither one of us volunteered any more personal information after that; I think we had been caught up in a rare reckless spontaneity that had left us just as quickly. But the sharing of secrets had tied us by common experience, and though we never ventured past pleasantries the rest of that night, I could almost walk the course of his thoughts.
When I awoke the next morning, I could tell that it was to be my last day on Osore. The sky had deepened even more into gray, so much that it seemed as if the world was awash with ash and smoke. It was going to snow soon, and it would be even worse than before. I think Heero recognized the signs as well. He took a look out the window and began to roll up his sleeping bag and pack up his clothes.
I watched in silence, uncomfortable at seeing him picking up his things. I had only just begun to know him and here he was leaving in only a few short moments. I dreaded each knot he made in his shoes, each zipper being pulled shut, every article of clothing he stowed. I was trying to find the words of an appropriate goodbye when he turned to face me from the doorstep. He opened his mouth and hesitated as he held my gaze. "I'm going to set up the shrine." He paused again, and shouldered his bag higher, looking away from me. "You should come." And then he turned and trudged out into the snow.
I stared in wonderment at his retreating back. I was surprised that he'd invite me to his own private memorial, to share something I didn't have a right to see. I really began to wonder if he felt the connection between us as strongly as I had the previous night.
I caught up with him just a little down the missing trail. We struggled through the icy snow together and marched across the unchanging terrain. Once or twice, he twisted off to another path, a route I was sure he had memorized down to the smallest details. We ended up at the face of a low cliff. The steep gray rock showed in patches through the snow that desperately hung on in clumps. He brushed the snow off in long sweeps of his hand, and as the snow and ice disappeared, a small clearing was revealed, a roughly hewn alcove in the stone with a tiny lip of a ledge, just large enough to maybe fit a prayer candle.
When all the snow had been dusted away, he removed his backpack and J's glasses. I stood behind him, and I could tell he was in the grip of something intense. His hands shook as he lifted the offering up to the ledge and deposited it on the uneven shelf. He stood rigid and unmoving for a while before finally turning around. His eyes were clenched tightly shut and his gloved hands were fisted at his sides. He walked past me without word. As I watched him go, I could understand the reason he chose this spot. Over his head, the lake spread out to fill half of the sky. One could look straight into death from this vantage point. I didn't follow him; it would have violated that strange trust I believe we had developed.
I sat in front of J's shrine and watched the lake. It was dark, ominous under the impenetrable sky. The white of the snow slid down to the edges of the water and disappeared into the inky liquid. The world suddenly seemed too empty and cavernous. It made me angry. It taunted me the way this wasted, stark land bore such a peacefulness and beauty in its own state of death. I actually hated it at that moment, filled with such jealousy that death and pain and grief dare look so placid, so coldly beautiful, when it was so twisted and febrile inside me. I wanted to hurl insults, to make this place understand, to somehow care. I don't know what my first word was; it came out with others in a spate of curses. The memories buried long ago resurfaced and I could remember the anticipation of opening birthday presents and the quiet moments in front of the TV, even the angry fights when I stormed out of the room. They were so alive in the memories, had such breath and color that I began to believe that they were right next to me. I held a desperate conversation with them, told them what they had missed, what I wished I could have said to them if we had had more time. All the while, throwing out the most hateful and vicious profanity I could piece together because though I could hear their voices, they weren't really there and I could only see the impassive snow and lake.
I don't know how long I was outside myself. When my breath had finally fallen short, the moment had broken, no longer sustainable without the string of distracted words to tether it close to me. Angry stinging tears streamed over my cheeks and I ground my teeth together so hard I could have broken rocks between them. This new feeling came over me, this strange sense of loss, of hollowness. But as it expanded and filled me, something else was dislodging, and that emptiness began to feel like liberation. For that moment, I didn't have the burden of pushing dangerous thoughts away anymore. It was the feeling of acceptance.
I don't know when Heero returned to the shrine. I saw him standing a few feet off, and he approached slowly when I showed no signs of wanting him to leave. His face had a haggardness that can only come from being emotionally drained. I wiped my sleeve across my face, clearing away the tears and the mucous. I felt exhausted too, wrung out.
We had finished what we had come to Osore to do, and we walked the rest of the way down the mountain in distracted silence. The snow-covered temple grounds rang with silent echoes. It was unsettling and our pace sped up across the undisturbed courtyard. The access roads at the base were steep and challenging with the unstable snow, but we made it without injury back to town.
We parted at the train station. Heero had a train to catch and I had a bag to pack and an inn to settle an account with. We said nothing. What was there to say when you had developed an inexplicable intimacy with a complete stranger? He walked away, steadily and firmly. I stood there watching his back with a growing regret. Once or twice he would pause and look back at me over his shoulder. I was too far away to tell what passed across his face. Right before he disappeared around the corner, he turned about fully and lifted a hand as if wave, but stopped halfway up and it hung frozen between us. Then he was gone.
I don't know what exactly went through my head after Heero disappeared from sight. The thought of him held my mind captive as I walked back to the inn. I missed him. For the all the words we hadn't exchanged, he had known me, and I had felt like I knew him too. The loss was painful, as I pictured my return journey, back to a campus of friends I wouldn't be able to share this trip with. That thought froze me inside, to the point of searing like fire. It took hold of my thoughts and my legs, and I sprinted the rest of the way to the inn, and rushed through my small room shoving clothes and books and souvenirs into any available pocket. I ran the entire way to the train station, unsure if Heero's train had left or even which one he was on. But there was only one standing on the tracks and I ran for the door in case it was getting ready to leave.
I searched all the compartments, methodically and feverishly, half afraid he had left on another train. But I found him in one of the cars near the back. He had looked up and stared at me in surprise when I had flung open the door. But slowly, like the rolling swells of the ocean, his face smoothed into a somewhat shy tentative smile. There was relief in it, and genuine warmth. I smiled back for all I was worth.
Author's Notes: To be entirely accurate, the first legend about the children piling the stones is true as far as I know. But the story of the boy from the sea is all from my head. Also ‘eigo o hanashimasu ka?' is the polite way of asking ‘Do you speak English?'.
‘Osore' translates to ‘fear' or ‘dread' though I titled the fic ‘Osore' because Mt. Osore was the setting, and not because of any symbolic nature of the word.