Robert Feeney has completed an MA in Creative Writing in University College Cork, Ireland. His stories have been published in “Quarryman” (the college’s literary journal), “The Rose Magazine” and “Verity La”. Two more are due to appear in “FishFood” and “The Shanghai Literary Review” in the coming months.
Among the Blue Trees
By Robert Feeney
It was Lester who saw it first Sis, the rope coiled around the tree on the lump-shaped hill. He climbed up and put his head through the noose.
“It fits,” he said.
You could hear the glee in his voice. I was happy too. After all, we came to the forest to find something, and this was certainly a marker, a sign. We’d been walking for hours before we came across it, tying red string between the trees so we could find our way back. Tony was losing patience, and Lester was losing hope. After all the stories we’d heard, after all the stories he’d told us, it seemed like just an everyday hike in the woods. No, that’s not quite true. The ground is different here. It’s covered with a spongy moss that sucks your feet in as you walk. And Lester was right about the phones. He told us about the volcanic soil, how it interferes with signals. It has something to do with magnetism. He could explain it to you but, as you know, I’m not the science type. I was daydreaming of undelivered words and messages, searching like us, barely disturbing the leaves as they passed through. The damp brown noose brought me back. As I said, Lester found it. I should have been paying more attention. I’m not here to lose myself.
Lester was lord of the welcome party when I first arrived a few months ago. He’s been in Japan for over eight years now. Long enough to have seen a few things. He took me out with some other teachers to a tiny restaurant called Kam on the outskirts of town. I say town, but it’s practically the countryside. Tony says that all the Japanese who live there are rednecks. I don’t think they get a lot of female teachers, so I’m even more of an oddity than usual. Lester bought me a dish of raw meat. He wouldn’t tell me what it was until I ate it. Tony scoffed it all when I hesitated, and told me later it was horse. He said it wasn’t so bad, that all you could taste was the soy sauce and wasabi. What I wouldn’t give for some of that right now. Apparently it’s good for building strength.
Lester took his head from the noose and laid the rope back down on the bank of the hill, trying to frame a shot. It stood out against the deep green of the grass and moss. One of my Japanese students said that when green gets that deep, it becomes blue.
“I don’t think we should take a photograph of it,” said Tony.
“Why not?” said Lester.
“It’s bad luck.”
“Is this some superstition you heard from your ex?”
“No, it’s just that-” said Tony, and paused. There wasn’t much wind around at the time. It couldn’t seem to find its way into the forest interior. Although the shade of the trees was protecting us from the worst of the sun, the air was weighing down on us. Now though, at night, I’ve caught myself shivering a few times. I’m glad I brought my hoodie.
“It’s just that, you’re basically voyeuring on someone’s grave.”
I don’t think voyeur can be used as a verb like that, but I didn’t bring it up at the time. I took his meaning. Really though, why did he think we came here in the first place? You don’t go to the second most popular suicide spot in the world for a relaxing stroll. Of course we were voyeurs. We wanted to see something, to find something.
“If it’s a grave, then where’s the body?” said Lester. “This rope is not that old.”
I climbed up to get a better look. It was thick stuff, looped several times around the trunk.
“There’s a danger that if you tie it around a branch, it won’t support your weight,” I explained.
“A danger?” said Tony, and looked at me like I was crazy. Or perhaps it was just good natured concern. I’m never sure with Tony. Did I tell you he asked me back to his apartment the first night we met at Kam? He was fairly drunk. I don’t think he believed me when I told him I wasn’t into guys, or his ego made him think I could be turned. He’s not so bad usually, when he’s not under pressure from the other guys to perform. But when he gave me that look earlier, I wanted to take a swing at him. If anyone needs looking after it’s Tony, not me. At least I’ve kept it together in here.
“If there was a body, it might have been dragged away by animals,” I said.
“Or there’s someone nearby who’s planning to become a body,” said Lester.
“We should keep searching,” I said.
I could tell Tony was not impressed with this latest development. Maybe he thought he had signed up for some laddish adventure. He just wanted to skirt around the border of what the forest was, and get home in time for dinner. But it was already six pm, and we were only going deeper. If Lester was right, and I hoped he was, there was more to be found.
“What exactly are we searching for?” said Tony, “we’ve got a good story already.”
Oh Tony, you just don’t know. You can’t be a member of the club, unless someone you know has a membership card. I held the rope in my hands Sis. It was slick and oily. I imagined someone tightening it around their throat and gently sliding off the slope of the hill. Did they cry? Lester said he heard sobbing a few hours ago, but I think it was just the wind, finally arriving at the centre of the forest. Or the text messages of family and friends, lost above the magnetic soil. Come home. We love you.
Lester told me about a week ago that he was leaving Japan soon and heading back to Africa. I don’t know why he told me and not Tony, since he’s only known me for a few months and has been friends with Tony for a few years more than that. I asked him why he was leaving. He said someone in his family was very ill, and then scratched his noise like he was about to sneeze. I thought about all of my hospital visits to you, the sickly lime curtains drawn between the beds, the sound of teeth grinding from the patient next to us, your weak smile. Lester said he had been hearing a voice, some sort of call to return, and it was becoming more insistent each night. When I tried to talk to him about an hour ago, it seemed like he was hearing that voice again, and only that voice. He didn’t respond to me at all. He was sweating a lot, even though it’s cold now. I don’t know what to do with him. Tony is on edge too. I wonder if something at the camp caused this.
It was spread out about half a kilometre from the noose, down an incline into a particularly dense part of the forest, where the greens and blues turned black and old. I couldn’t believe our luck. I think I said something stupid like
“What a treasure trove,” said Lester.
A large orange tent lay crumpled against the incline, and around it were scattered various artefacts – a CD Walkman, a plain t-shirt, some empty packets of food, and an electric hairdryer.
“Well, that is confusing,” said Lester. I picked up every item, turning it over in my hands, reading each character there was to read. Looking for a clue, a hint. Tony was focused on the packets, looking for any edible scraps. I was too absorbed at the time to notice, but I guess we were all fairly hungry at that stage. We’d eaten our lunch early, and nobody had thought to bring extra, or nobody wanted to carry the weight. The packets were all empty in any case, and useless. They didn’t tell me anything. He or she liked nuts. Maybe the decision to end it gives you cravings for salt, or the need to practice senses like taste one final time.
Lester bent down to the ground. He had found something again. There was a note folded underneath a stone beside the collapsed tent.
“Let me see it,” I said, a little too desperately. Tony gave me that look again. Lester just unfolded it, laughed, and handed it over to me. It was written in Japanese of course.
“You can read this, can’t you Lester?”
“Sorry, too many kanji.”
It could have been anything. A shopping list. A letter to a loved one. Maybe the writer intended it to just dissolve into the earth. I sat down on a nearby rock and folded it carefully again. I don’t know what I expected to discover coming here. A universal reason, some logic or rules. If you won’t tell me Sis, then what am I supposed to do?
I know I haven’t talked to you in a while. I tried to last month, but Tony walked in on me. The stupid unisex bathroom in Kam. I forgot to lock the door. I may have been a little drunk at the time. It was a strange place for one of our conversations, I agree, but then again so is the middle of a forest. Tony walked in and just froze. I gave him a look, one of those looks you used to give me, the “don’t tell anyone about this or I’ll kill you” gaze. Then I squeezed out past him. I don’t know what he thinks he saw, but he hasn’t tried it on with me again since then. Nobody wants damaged goods, when everyone has their own multitude of problems to deal with. Lester says Tony has a problem with his self-esteem. If he does, Lester hasn’t helped matters.
“Anything in that Walkman, lumphead?” said Lester, as Tony picked it up. His thumb pulled on a catch at the side and the lid sprang open with surprising force. There was a CD inside.
“Who’s the artist?” said Lester.
“It doesn’t say,” said Tony. Its surface was as white and blank as bone.
“Well listen to it then.”
“You listen to it.”
Tony threw the Walkman over to Lester. He wiped the headphones with his shirt, put them in his ears, and pressed play. I sat there watching him for a few long seconds. I wondered if we had found a final recording, or maybe a compilation of beloved tunes. Songs that unlocked memories. But to end it, remembering vividly the shared dances, the youthful summers… that seems horrible to me. That seems to give it a horrible weight.
“Nothing,” said Lester.
“The batteries must be dead,” said Tony
“No, there’s nothing on the CD.”
“Let me listen,” I said.
I felt a moment had arrived, like in the children’s books you and I used to read together Sis, when the chosen one is revealed through their ability to do something no-one else can. The owner of the camp had left something for me alone. When I heard the message, what would I do? Would I even tell the others? I haven’t told them anything so far Sis. I think Tony reckons I want to kill myself or something stupid like that, and Lester has a lot of other things on his mind. Would they even be interested in the reasons why? I decided I wasn’t going to share the secret with them.
But I couldn’t hear anything. The CD was one long track of silence. All that was coming through was the whirr of machinery and the deep sound of air in my ears. I hid my disappointment in a shrug of my shoulders and passed it back to Tony, who was brave enough now to listen himself.
“Who would use a blank CD as the soundtrack for topping themselves?” said Tony.
“The same person who would bring an electric hairdryer to a forest,” said Lester. He had stopped his rummaging to consider the situation, as I was starting to. The owner of the camp may have tied the noose we found, but they didn’t use it. They probably wouldn’t have returned home without taking their tent and possessions with them. So where were they? They may have gone for a mind-clearing walk through the trees. They might even return soon.
“I think I hear something, but it might be just static,” said Tony, finger pressed against the headphone in his right ear. I wasn’t listening to him. I was imagining meeting the camp owner, communicating in our broken languages, using hand signals and body language to tell them your story, to see if they could translate it for me. I imagined Lester and Tony looking on in annoying incomprehension and pity. I imagined the camp owner with short black hair and blue eyes, just like the picture in my wallet.
“It’s getting dark,” said Lester, stretching his arms to the canopy of leaves high overhead, “what should we do?”
I felt tired Sis. The cold of the rock was seeping up through my spine and towards my head.
“Let’s go back,” I said.
“Good idea,” said Tony, but he didn’t return the Walkman to the camp. He had overcome his earlier superstitions and found a hunger for trophies, something to pull out dramatically while telling his story over rum and colas at Kam. It was my turn to glare at him.
“What? It’s not like they’re going to need it,” he said.
I took it from his jacket pocket, tore the headphones from his ears, and placed it inside the tent. He walked off, shaking his head and muttering
“What’s your fucking deal?”
Maybe he’s right Sis. I was just being a hypocrite. I came here to disturb the dead, lost my nerve and took it out on him. But we’re not thieves. I was tempted to take the note, and I had more reason than him to steal something, but I put it back under the stone. He shouldn’t have taken anything.
We tidied up the camp a bit, then followed our loyal string back to the lump of a hill. The silence of the CD played on inside my head, like the last song you hear on the radio before you leave your house. I tried to look forward to the small comforts of my box apartment; food, a hot bath, some mindless net surfing. But they seemed a bit colourless and trivial in the gloom. I stopped walking when I reached the hill. It looked deflated, as if the roots of its crowning tree had sapped it of all moisture and vitality. The rope snaked about on its surface. I couldn’t see where our string continued.
“Over there,” said Lester, but the string he had seen was a different colour to ours, and obviously older. Now we were searching intently, we started to find multiple strings hanging between the trunks, all different colours, leading in multiple directions. Lifelines of previous hikes.
“Fuck,” said Lester.
“They weren’t here before,” said Tony.