When Mr. Mori received the phone call, he didn’t know how to react. He hadn’t told his wife about it. He thought it best to keep it from her. She filled his ears with inquiry whenever troubles arose, for she was a woman of conduct. She needed to know everything, always. By her hand, the dishes were scrubbed compulsively after dinner that night, as if the marks left from silverware could be polished away. And just before bed, she checked the locks, as if someone was planning a break-in. Telling her about the call would only amplify her anxiety. Worsen it irreversibly. She would never be the same.
The voices were automated, surreal, as if dialed from another planet. We know, Mr. Mori. We’re doing our best. Where? In a forest. Southeast, near the coast. At the base of Fuji. Yes, that’s where we found it. Mori’s mind reacted to them in disbelief, guarding him from his humanity, the grief knocking at his door. Various windows scattered the computer screen in front of him. They blared into his eyes, lifeless and fluorescent, brimming with paragraphs of research. He avoided the text that mattered, however. Words depreciating his disillusionment. Perhaps hope was the same thing — only disillusion. He reserved a place for it prior. Now, only potentialities remained.
. . .
Several hundred miles away, under the jarring light of a white room, Jaclyn’s lips gleamed like a wet balloon. An ice-blue swizzle stick dangled from her mouth — the only thing she’d eaten in two days.
“There’s a party tonight,” her friend Yumi said, kneeling beside her. “It would be good for you.”
Jaclyn didn’t reply. She glanced at a steel rack across the room, full of designer clothing. She wore every article only minutes ago, strutting across a runway smothered with eyes.
“I have a friend who’s coming. A pharmaceutical rep. He can offer you something.”
“I don’t want anything,” Jaclyn said. She turned to a mirror.
“Of course you’ll want something,” Yumi said. “You always tell me how the stressful the industry is. How much you miss your daddy. It’ll take the edge off of you.”
Jaclyn ignored her. She slipped on a pair of pumps, clicking her way to the exit. Her friend wasn’t far behind.
Outside, night had fallen. The city’s gutters surged with rainwater, reflecting the fluorescent lamps and business signs. Jaclyn walked alongside them, stepping over random puddles in the street.
“I still need to visit my grandmother tonight.”
“One hour,” Yumi said. “That’s all I ask of you.”
The midnight hour came to a close, and the girls had ingressed into a building. They entered an elevator, pressed a button, and waited. On the twenty-first floor, the metal doors opened. They exited, letting the noise of a party lead them to the right door.
Upon their entry, voices met them en masse. From wall to wall, the flat was engulfed with people and florid lights. Women coursed by in tight dresses, platters held overhead, cocktails and tiny appetizers made through molecular gastronomy upon them. In the corner of the room, a man was waiting. Yumi grabbed a drink and made a beeline for him, pulling Jaclyn behind her.
“Look who’s come out to play,” the man said. Yumi hugged him, pecking each side of his face. “And who’s this darling with you?”
“Jaclyn. Lovely name,” he said, perfunctorily. He analyzed her like a specimen. “They call me Ezra, Jaclyn.”
“She’s interested in what you’ve brought this evening.”
“Have a seat then,” he said, lips pouty. “Those heels look terrible.”
The three sat, Ezra scooting unnecessarily close.
“How was it today? Rewarding?” he asked.
“Only because of you, love. I would’ve felt, well, nervous otherwise.”
Ezra laughed, wobbling from his recent martini.
“Anything for you, darling,” he said. He began rummaging through his bag. “Now, the developers gave me a little something they want sponsored this week. I don’t think you’ve tried it. Perhaps Jaclyn here can be your guinea pig—” They tittered, dawdling into a pause. Ezra lowered his voice sotto voce. “It’s called Jovialix. They’ve only synthesized it this week.”
He handed them each five tablets. Yumi’s eyes lit up. She slipped the little pills into her handbag, Jaclyn half-heartedly doing the same.
“And if you don’t want it,” Ezra added, eyes sliding to Jaclyn, “there’s always something in the future.”
. . .
Within his home, Mr. Mori removed his spectacles and looked at the clock. 10 p.m. He pinched the bridge of his nose, gazing out a window upon a Tokyo glittering with lights. In the sky above it, there were no stars. Only blackness, symbolic of the veiled truth about his daughter. Her potential whereabouts were innumerous. He drew a blank when it came to them, obscure as the night sky above.
She’s a good girl, Jaclyn, he thought. Always on time, just like her mother. Mute when it came to conflict. Gracious when it came to defeat. She hasn’t a reason to do it. Perhaps her greatest gift, however, is the ability to mask her feelings. She isn’t a liar — just modest, polite. As organized in temperament as she keeps her room.
From his desk, Mori stood, wandering down a hallway. He stopped just before her room. Opening the door, perfume wafted over him — eucalyptus and spearmint. He imagined the trees of Aokigahara. Their coniferous scent after a spring rain. The image of her limp body sped across his mind, halfway smeared with rain and filth. Somewhere amongst his thoughts, a plan became manifest: he would purchase a ticket to the faraway forest. Through the mist into the sea of trees, he would hike, searching for his daughter. The negative figments taunting him were just that — figments. They stood outside his mind like a persistent salesman tapping on the doorbell, but they simply held no place in reality.
A scored compass. Several wool sweaters. A tent and sleeping pad. The details of his plan bothered him: how he’d leave without his wife’s intervention. That night, he waited. Waited until she fell into a limitless slumber. Bags packed, he then departed for the train station.
. . .
“I should get going soon,” Jaclyn said on the street. “It’s late.”
“So late it’s early.”
“My grandmother usually wakes up by now.”
Yumi didn’t reply. She had stopped in middle of the boulevard, gazing up at a billboard. MAYBELLINE, it read. ETERNAL. The faces of two underage beauties gleamed across it. Yumi couldn’t remove her eyes. Her face exhibited envy.
“Our whole world has turned into Babylon,” she whispered to herself.
Jaclyn frowned at the comment.
“Come on,” she said. “Stop thinking about it. You always think about it when you’ve had too much.”
Yumi sighed, realizing her irrationality. Her dark hair lifted in the wind a little.
“Don’t you think about it, though?” she asked. “Don’t tell me you don’t think about it?”
Jaclyn shook her head.
“I have other things to think about — the fact I’ve been missing from home for two months now, for example.”
Yumi mindlessly stared at Jaclyn’s feet, perched upon the heels of her shoes. A rainbow-hued puddle of antifreeze and battery acid had coalesced around them, refracting the light from the billboard.
“Go on, then. Visit your grandmother,” she said. “I’ll see you in a few days.”
Reluctantly, Jaclyn agreed, hugging Yumi. As Yumi watched her leave, tears began streaking down her face. It was dawn, catharsis inevitable.
. . .
In the distance, the silhouette of Fuji grew in Mori’s field of vision. He hiked down a road, feeling the humidity blanketing his newfound environment. Pavement had changed to gravel paths. Metal signs had become wooden. And as the morning heat burgeoned, Mori finally managed to reach the ranger’s station. He hiked to the door and knocked. A man in a myrtle uniform answered.
“Hi there,” he said.
“Hello. I’m here for the jacket.”
“Yes, that’s me.”
“Please, come in.”
He opened the door further. Mori walked past.
“It’s not often family members come themselves,” the ranger said. “Usually it’s investigators. Boyfriends, girlfriends, significant others — they’re all more common than family. I guess families find shame in this place.”
The man handed him the raincoat. The mud on its surface had dried into a crust.
“Where did you find it?” Mori asked.
The ranger thought about it.
“Probably three miles northeast of here. There wasn’t a body. Someone had abandoned it,” he explained, hesitating. “If you want, you have our permission to search the area.”
Mori raised the jacket to his nose. Eucalyptus and spearmint.
“Is it worth it?” he asked, hugging the article to his chest.
The ranger looked into Mori’s pained face.
“If that’s what your heart tells you,” he answered.
. . .
Many miles away, in the midst of Tokyo, Jaclyn walked through an apartment door numbered 551. Immediately, the scent of her grandmother’s Parliament cigarettes overwhelmed her.
“Hi Nana,” she said, closing the door behind her. The old woman turned.
“Jaclyn. I didn’t hear you. Goodness, you’re early. What is it, 5 a.m.?”
“I don’t know.”
“How did you sleep, dear?”
“Well enough,” she lied. “What do you have there?”
Her grandmother stood, reaching for the curtains which covered a window. Sliding them open, a burst of light illumined the room, revealing the floating dust.
“Just going through some old things. A bit of nostalgia is all. Harmless, really.”
“Would you like any help?”
“If that’s what you feel like, dear.”
In her grandmother’s box were blushes, powders, and dried-up mascara brushes. Jaclyn switched on a table lamp, joining her grandmother before a mirror.
“What shall we try on first?” she asked. Her grandmother reached for a blush, handing it to her. Jaclyn opened it, caressing the soft padding into the caking. She began dabbing her grandmother’s cheek. Side by side, the two looked into the mirror together. Like an innocent Narcissus, Jaclyn admired her own image — cupid, unblemished and fair. Her skin had few flaws, even to her grandmother’s failing eyes. The old woman’s cheeks felt frail in comparison. No matter how much powder Jaclyn applied, her wrinkles wouldn’t diminish.
“That’s enough, darling. Thank you,” she said. “Now hand me the lipstick.”
Jaclyn unsheathed a crimson shade and handed it to her. Her grandmother leaned forward, squinting past the remnants of dust on the mirror.
“Just like so,” she said. She penciled a red line around her mouth. It was serrated from her shaking hand and failed to mask the wrinkles on her lips. Embarrassed, Jaclyn looked away from the reflection, embarassed.
“What’s wrong, dear?” her grandmother asked. “Do I not look beautiful?”
“Of course you do, Nana,” she said. “You always do.”
Beyond the window, the urban jungle of Tokyo smothered the world. Within the windows of every building, people awoke and began to wander. Some were smiling, faces masking imminent desires. Others were frowning, acknowledging that life that had broken them. A million faces wishing for the immortal, the permanent, the unattainable. Turning to gaze out her own window, Jaclyn thought of her father. Somewhere, out there, he must be waiting for her.
“I should probably get going, Nana,” she said.
“Yes. Father’s waiting.”
“No, Nana. Yudai. Daddy.”
“Yudai? I don’t remember a —”
Jaclyn leaned forward. She kissed her grandmother on the head.
“I love you, Nana.”
“I love you, dear.”
. . .
The forest floor under Mori’s feet seemed darker than when he had been there previously: brown-black, with specks of silver. Every so often, he tripped over its roots. Like a twisted head of hair, they grabbed at his shoelaces. “The Suicide Forest” they called it. A place of infamy. Here, hundreds of Japanese citizens came yearly to take their own lives.
After hiking two hours, Mori finally glimpsed another soul. In the distant clearing, the stranger stood on the crest of an outcropping. Blaze-orange in color, a robe wrapped his figure. Leaning on a cane, he gazed at his surroundings, his back facing Mori.
“Hello,” Mori shouted, approaching. The stranger didn’t turn.
“Hello,” he said again, louder this time. The man reared his head. Nodding once, he gestured for Mori to sit beside him. Mori approached and did so, crossing his legs upon a rock.
Silently, the two peered into the distance. At that moment, in the vast silence that followed, Mori knew why they called it the “sea of trees.” He thought of his daughter. How impossible it’d be to find her in such a place, if she were alive at all.
“So,” the man said, breaking his silence. “Why are you here?”
“To find my teenage daughter,” Mori replied. “You?”
“To speak with passersby,” he said, waiting. “Your daughter’s name — what is it?”
The man nodded and adjusted his robe. A scored cane rested upon his thighs.
“I met her. Just the other day, in fact,” he said. He spoke as if it wasn’t a revelation at all.
“You saw her?” Mori said, anxious. Eyes wide, he stared into the man’s face. “Impossible. Where did she go?”
“Into the city.”
“Is that all she told you?”
The man paused, listening to Mori’s beating heart.
“No,” he said, picking his words judiciously. “She told me she came here to contemplate the future of her life.”
Mori shook his head. The man watched him, aware of Mori’s breathing.
“She said that if the city does not satisfy her — and we both know it will not — then she will return home to your arms.”
Instantly Mori rose to his feet, gathering his belongings. The man gazed into his eyes and nodded. “Go home,” he said, “and show her you love her.”
Mori removed a bill from his wallet, but the man refused to accept it. He bowed and departed, quickly vanishing into the sparkling foliage. The crunch of his boots faded down the hillside.
. . .
That same evening, Jaclyn Mori returned home.
The nineteen-year-old crept through the front door while her mother slept. A recent rain had sopped her only outfit. Her shoes squeaked when she walked. But she was grateful. After the journey home from Aokigahara, her father found her in the living room, standing halfway between the light and darkness. He had arrived only minutes after she had.
Father and daughter, their eyes met across the hall. They said nothing, shadows of uncertainty growing in the space between them. On the street outside, a car honked. The wind whistled against the house’s panes. Mori let the silence fill him, then he exhaled. Dropping his bag to the floor, he embraced his daughter’s shivering body. Jaclyn surrendered, letting his compassion envelope her. Her father squeezed her tightly and she began to sob.
“Nothing,” she asked, stammering from the cold, “in this world is permanent. Is it so?”
Mori exhaled strongly, attempting to find the right words.
“Only love,” he said, without thinking. “Only love, my dear.”
They held each other, time without an existence. Outside, Tokyo vibrated from the electricity of thirteen million — a myriad of lives, of stories devoid of love. All that mattered to Jaclyn, however, was her father’s embrace. For a moment, she left the world behind, leaving it to its loneliness and its austere devices. Within her heart, the glowing hearth of loving-kindness became a reality once again. Mori had lifted her soul, and — if only for a moment — the world had again brightened.