“Did you carry a body once it had died?
For how long and how far?”
“You know the lovely thing about you?” he said.
It was sunset when we reached the top of Mt. Fuji and decided to finish off the honey. I shushed him as I dipped my hands into the last jar and, with fingers syrupy and wet, scrawled sticky lines of unmei—destiny, that is, one of the ten words he’d taught me—over and over onto his skin, starting with the small exposed square of his ankle up to long line of his throat, washed orange in the glow of late summer. A long while later, after it dried, when the stars had reclaimed the sky, he brushed sugar crystals from his eyes like sleep as he finished the thought.
“You never do things the easy way.”
The doctors use words like benign and minimally invasive, they tell me they’ll call in the morning when I can pick him up, but when they call instead they say only that they lost him. How do you lose a whole life, like car keys or a sock? Their words are all used up when they show me the body. I have no words, either, because I was not there when he went. I was at home, sleeping, waiting for the call saying he could come home. At the end did he know how much he was loved? Or did he hear only the hum of terror?
Months pass, and I still have no words. I have only the keening, the ache. The silence. The flitting shadows, the shapes, that make me think him then realize I’m grabbing a doorknob instead. I start folding cranes, because if I can get to a thousand I can wish the shadows away. There’s a word for an act this desperate, but I can’t remember it.
The cranes I make with spare cardboard have a wing span almost two yards long, but most are sized like baseballs, easily palmed. Some are as small as dimes. I say the steps to the room as I fold, because I never learned any prayers. The folds are my prayers, murmured as I make each crease: mountain, valley, valley, inside, reverse, collapse. Soon I am low on paper, and cut magazines into squares, leaving behind smudged newsprint, scrapped articles and ads. It is the cranes that tell me the stock market isn’t doing well. They tell me there were no survivors in the plane crash on the Atlantic. I become enthralled with these new words. When I get to a thousand, I keep going, so the room teems with cranes. I’m halfway through creasing a New Variorum edition Hamlet into 182 ping-pong-ball-sized birds when I realize it has to end.
The moving is easy; I sell most everything. The new town sits closer north next to a quaint marsh with real cranes. I pack my clothes into one suitcase and a few books into another. I also take his favorite sweater, worn in some places and needing darning but still holding his scent. The man next door, who walks his dog every morning at six, comes out to help, but I tell him I’m fine and carry the suitcases down to the car alone, stopping only once to rest. I tell myself I am strong, like apricot pits. The couple above plays their music too loud and their kids run everywhere, at all hours, never walk. They watch me when I get the mail, then laugh glibly when I trip over their half-buried toys in the yard. It’s a mess. There are green soldiers in the hydrangeas, tiny cars in the geraniums. The last thing I do before I go is pick the litter out of the comfrey and dig it up, replanting it over his grave across town. He always liked its nautilus curl right before it bloomed.
We took a brief rest next to a shrine at the last waypoint. A riotous sense of victory began to stir. Our hiking sticks had ten souvenir brands, one for every station.
We struggled up the rest of the mountain at a bullet climb, ignoring the altitude warnings and nausea along the way, wanting to make it to the top before nightfall. My vision went red more than once with sky-sickness, or maybe just the sun. The air was so thin, as if to say, there is no need for these struggles night after night.
The new town is colder, but the rented house I settle in is isolated, cheap, furnished. Small, so it doesn’t feel too empty. The walls are eggshell white, bare, lacking in both dust and memories, debris and meaning. The ceilings are high, though, and I hear it is usually chilly these late months. I hang my clothes in the closet then put some tea on in the kitchen. While I’m waiting on the kettle’s whistle, I take a bath, as the new house has a sizable tub. The old place just had a shower, and that with two pressure settings: bruising and off. I briefly permit this joy, being gently submerged in the water on all sides, but the cranes’ sounds come through the walls and scare me. Over tea I convince myself they are just talking, and of course they are miles away. Being echoed by the water, they only sound like they’re near the house or waiting beneath the window.
I set a book on the table next to the bed, so the place feels more lived in, but when I go to read it the words just blur and fall away. I put many layers of quilts on the mattress, but I end up sleeping on the covers, feeling suffocated by the sheets. Out the window, I notice the moon is dim, half-full.
There wasn’t much at the ninth station, but we handed our sticks over to the brander and took a break to fuel up.
“I think the bees brought us together,” he said. “Not kamikaze, not fate. I was thinking, maybe we should light incense for them on the descent, to ward off the ghosts of their dead.”
I started to tell him they were just bees, but he spooned some honey into my mouth before I could speak.
In the morning, the cupboards are empty so I to drive into town on a grocery run, pulling his sweater on as I go. I always just want to buy milk, cereal, peanut butter, every now and then a cheap wine, but now I can imagine him telling me I can’t live off that junk and at least splurge on a good vintage. I add bananas to the basket and sack potatoes, and opt for a mid-range Merlot. A man sitting outside on a rusted blue trunk, hunched in the wind, wearing an oversized jacket and loose tie, calls me over. I listen to his pitch as he pulls native-style beaded things out of his case. Then he says, Name a blossom, any blossom. And it takes some cajoling but finally I say, Orange, because I haven’t seen one of the trees flower in years. And with some flair, he places jarred orange blossom honey in my hands, labeled neatly in square handwriting with a straw bow around the lid. And the word comes to me: hachimitsu. The edges of things go fuzzy as I push the jar back into his hands, but it falls and clatters on the ground. I don’t think it breaks, but he calls to me, Wait! I’m already ducking into the car, turning away, a little breathless and heart beating hard. On the way home, I feel silly and rude, but glancing in the rearview mirror I see a misty shape stepping out of the forest. Braking suddenly, I smell rubber, heat. Another glance and I see nothing. Going into town wasn’t a good idea.
Back home, I fold his sweater into the suitcase. The corner rooms are wintry, so I turn on the heater. I try to pick up the book again but the words are still disordered. Instead I crimp some sheets into a drooping winged shape then turn into bed early.
We tried to nap at the eighth waypoint with our jackets under our heads, but there was no sleep to be had, too many hikers stomping past our heads, so we just carried on under the noon heat.
I wake up shivering, when light breaks, having dreamed of frost. Snow was flaking in a field of brambles and comfrey, then a shrinking, and the sea boiling out my pores, and the salt surge drowning the cranes, the new town, the old town, the nation. I wake up calm, but disturbed.
It was just a bad dream, I tell myself. During the night, there was a whiteout, I must have heard the storm. I manage to eat some hot cereal with sliced banana, to help with the thaw. I pull on the sweater along with extra layers and thick socks so I can walk along the pier surrounding the marshes, crunching the snow loudly as I go. All the cranes seem to be in hiding and I am breathing deeper now, whether because of the distance or the air. On the third circle around, cheeks red with cold and numb, I resolve to come back later in the week when the weather clears, at least twice a week. Back at the house, on the doormat, I see the honey. The same straw bow. The block letters. I stop to admire the little petals swimming at the bottom, then take it inside to the kitchen. I dip a spoon in, once, clinking the sides as a my hand trembles, to taste the sharp sweet citric bite, then immediately dump it down the drain, stomach knotted with guilt.
The remaining hours in the evening, I stay busy with digging at the hard-packed snow on the porch, wiping by hand the mud tracked into the house, and when night comes, I soothe my soreness with a warm bath. I wrinkle and lounge. As the water turns not quite cold, I open my eyes to find a skink perched on the spigot, probably trying to escape the snow too. I stare at the lizard, it stares back. We both blink slowly, impossibly blank, as the sky darkens then turns black.
As we sipped exorbitantly marked up tea at a small stall at the seventh station, he talked with the hushed tone reserved for inside shrines as he told me about the diaspora of the bees.
“I saw just a snippet of it on the news while waiting for the follow-up appointment, about the disappearances, how the whole society was collapsing. When they called my name I forgot all about it of course. It wasn’t until I was outside that it sank in. A fear wedged itself in my spine, like a grenade with the pin half in. I mean, if I disappeared, a single person, who would know why?”
“I would know why,” I say, twining pinkies with him like a schoolgirl. “I’d disappear with you.”
With the jar washed, I return it to the hunched man. The weather is still blistery, but he is not so hunched as earlier, and has shaved. He accepts the empty jar, asking only whether I enjoyed it. But I cannot articulate the words, I stammer.
“It was good,” I manage to say.
“We need sweetness to live off of,” he says, and offers another, but I decline, thanking him all the same.
The next morning I decide to go back to the old town. I still have plenty of savings to find a furnished room there. I pack all of my clothes and the books, which takes less time than I plan. I finish the box of cereal, chewing each bite thirty-two times, then wash the dishes, dry and stack them. I unplug the heaters and turn down the thermostat. Suddenly it’s noon and when it comes time to turn the key to start the car, I find I can’t.
Because it’s just grass, I tell myself. Reluctantly I hear the truth in this, thinking through the logistics of actually throwing myself down on his grave and crying a long while. Someone would make me get up eventually, then where would I go? The cold lets up but I am in bed all day under the blankets. As there is no paper in the house, I only mime the usual movements, sometimes tangling my gown and the sheets. There’s a creaking on the steps I pretend not to hear and tug the covers higher.
I stay in bed another day, coming out only to eat some peanut butter and pour some wine. I’m glad he always told me to get the good stuff now. I mean I’m glad I listened to him. I tear the bottle’s label and start to arrange it into a tiny, lopsided crane, but give up halfway through and ball it up tight.
At night, I dream my hands turn splotched and grey then crack and turn to stone.
The sixth waypoint featured a shrine surrounded by a small lake. We watched a leaf fall, land on the water then circle out in tremors.
“The water here is the same shade of jade I remember from childhood,” he said.
“The lakes back in the States are just muddy and brown,” I replied, rubbing my calves.
“I bet this one’s deeper than it looks.”
He stuck his whole arm in water and we could see his fingers wiggling all the way down, scaring off the tiny darting fish.
Before moving on, we bought two jars of honey for a couple of yen from an older Japanese man in a western-style business suit, who kept gesturing at us, saying, “Carbs best, carbs best,” which he explained took less oxygen to digest and was better for the altitude.
More snow has fallen over the night and blankets everything thickly but the sun has started melting the top layer, leaving it mushy and wet. I stretch on the bedroom carpet, noticing my muscles, my tendons, for the first time in months, taut, moving and working, rallying. I stand to pull my leg behind me, but almost slip. I move to a quick sous-sus I remember from ballet classes taken years ago but knock over a lamp, tumbling, bruising my ankle. These things take time, I say. And steps.
But knowing me, there are no steps, it is everything all at once, always.
Today I think it is warm enough to go out with just the sweater and my cashmere gloves, as the sun is out and water is dripping everywhere. Snow slumps from the roof, periodically, thumping wetly down. The trip into town is harder with the unswept snow melting on the road. I want to speed, but I make sure to keep both hands on the wheel, music off. Snow dusting the trees sometimes drops to the ground behind me creating ghosted clouds, but after the first time I stare ahead without wavering. When I near the main road, I see the stoplights weighted with icicles. They all blink caution at me as I wait my turn. Many people throw snowballs at the cars in jest. The honks are not in anger, only a mechanical laughter. One boy busily draws monsters onto all the post boxes. The man with the honey is in front of the store, building a snowman with a little boy and girl in the empty parking lot. I notice the CLOSED sign but watch for a few minutes, as the girl knocks off the snowman’s head and the boy’s face screws up in tears. The man takes a top hat and puts it on the snowman’s body, giving him a head and a body or maybe a head and feet, but the boy stops crying. The man waves, and I give a small wave back.
I drive home slowly yet run up the steps, slipping on the ice. I take to my hands and knees, going up one at a time, until I hear a creaking noise beside the house. Shielding my eyes with a one hand against the sun glare, I think maybe it’s just settling snow. Seeing only a mounded white blending into more mounded white and an endless horizon, I want to head inside and curl under the covers and run all of the heaters at once. But I stare at the whiteness as the snow seeps through my shoes. I hear the creaking again, which sounds more and more like a small cry I can’t ignore. I ease off the steps and come around the corner, closer, pinpointing it to a pile of snow behind a dead azalea bush. Kneeling, I start digging. My motions start out careful, measured, taking a powdery mass at a time and dumping it in a neat pile before taking another. My slacks are soaked through in seconds, and in minutes I am sweating with the repetition. I speed up as I notice my hands are no longer in pain, are now completely numb, blotched and pale, but I push my worries aside and continue searching. The cry gets louder. I lose a glove in the snow somewhere. The sensation of ants is marching inside my arm when I reach something softer than snow. I am scared to look but it has to be done. I find a skinny orange tomcat curled in a tight ball, except for one limp arm held at an odd angle, gashed, with a fight-torn ear. I look around, at the sparkling velvet white, the grey sky, the marsh in the distance, bewildered.
But I take him. I gently tuck him into the sweater, blood and gash and all, careful of his arm. He’s limp and pitiful but nuzzles into the warm crook of my elbow.
“You know the trouble with you?” he said.
I didn’t answer, concentrating on my footing in the lava sand, surprisingly soft and dark like potting soil. We were almost halfway up the mountain, having just left the last of the paved roads. Our hiking sticks had five souvenir brands. He’d tied a pink ribbon at the top of mine which he’d tugged out from under my shoe back in the famous suicide forest at the summit, where for a whole hour he translated all of the notes nailed to the trees as we went (like, Nothing good ever happened to me in life don’t look for me, but also You think you die alone but nobody is alone in this world).
“You always do things the hard way.”
Tracie Renée Dawson is a first-year MFA fiction candidate at the University of South Carolina. Her work can be found in Rabbit Catastrophe Review and Word Riot.