It had never occurred to him that the red elk wasn’t real. For a year now, Sato had followed its trail through the thick forest around the mountain that people called the Sea of Trees and Sato called his playground. No matter how deep it led him in, it always returned him home. It was his older sister, Kiko, who first had the idea.
“Silly boy,” she said, “you don’t get elk around here, especially not red ones. It’s just the tanuki playing tricks on you.”
Sato knew all about the tanuki – his parents had told him and Kiko many stories about the shape-shifting raccoon dogs. They still did if asked, though they would begin by saying, “Aren’t you getting a little old for bedtime stories?” Yet they were no mere stories, they were true. Whenever his father, who ran the Sea of Trees Inn at the foot of the mountain, counted the mochi balls in the kitchen and came up short, he would curse the mischievous, furry spirits of the forest. (Meanwhile Sato and Kiko, hiding in one of their many dens among the trees, would giggle through mouthfuls of the sweet, gelatinous rice cake.)
“But why would they want to trick me?” Sato replied.
“Because. Why would they want to steal mochi balls?”
“They don’t. We do.”
“We’re not the only ones, of course. If we’d been behind the disappearance of every mochi ball in this house we’d each be as round as one by now.”
“But what kind of trick is it? To lead me through the forest, to lead me to those… people.”
“Maybe they just want to scare you.”
Sato tried to sound sceptical but it troubled him. He’d followed the red elk without question all this time but now he needed to know what it was, what it meant, and why it wanted him to find the people in the trees. It was the only way to save his home.
The day before, a bureaucrat sent by the Shogunate had shown up to finalise the papers. He was a short, balding man wearing a formal kimono and unsuitable geta. He looked the same colour as the sky, which had been blotted out by a cloud of ash in recent days, following another eruption from the mountain – Fuji-san, the great old man, had been grumbling a lot lately. This was partly why the Shogunate wanted to buy up the guest house, and why father had been so happy to sell. In two weeks they’d move to the city to open a new hotel. “We’ll plant cypress and hemlock all around it and call it ‘the Sea of Trees Edo’,” his father told them all over dinner. Mother gave a thin smile but didn’t reply. She’d been happy to leave Edo all those years ago and wasn’t thrilled to be going back – least of all to Asakusa, where most of the guest houses weren’t simply hotels but provided a very particular type of entertainment for men.
Sato wasn’t excited at the prospect either. He had grown up in the shadow of the mountain. He knew nothing beyond the trees. The snow-capped crown of Fuji-san was his constant backdrop, more fixed in the sky than the sun and moon. He was home among the sounds of the forest – the calls of the flycatchers and the rock ptarmigans – and wasn’t the least afraid of the shadows that moved between the ancient cedars. He’d seen the insects and the squirrels and the foxes, who like the tanuki, could change their shape and appear in many forms.
His only experience of the city was the guests who came to escape it. Several times their children had remarked that he was ugly, and shrank in disgust from his dark skin. In turn, he found the city kids to be prissy and somehow lacking in solidity. Their skin was like the paper in a shoji screen. Eventually Sato and Kiko were forbidden from playing with the guests’ children after one of them complained that Kiko had kicked his shin, which she had.
It had been some time since he’d seen such people at the inn, though. About one year ago things had started to change. For the most part it was the mountain worshippers that stayed with them now – the second reason the Shogunate and his father were both happy to make a deal. The worshippers spoke little and ate little – “Not even the finest mochi balls in the Five Lakes,” Father complained – and saved any tip money for the mikoshi shrines of the Sengen-Jinja temple. They had none of the glamour of the former guests and regarded the beautiful Sea of Trees Inn as so much chopped wood.
With the worshippers had come the eruptions and, for Sato, the red elk:
* * *
An eruption, one of the first Sato could remember, had rendered the sky black, leaving little daylight to filter through the thick groves of cherry trees. The usual scent of evergreen was crushed by the rotten-egg smell of sulphur and burnt charcoal. Mother and Father had warned him not to wander into the forest with the sun hidden as it was – even Fuji-san could no longer be seen above the treetops – so he was keeping himself amused in the hotel garden, throwing small stones into the fishpond and watching the carp dart away from the ripples. When he got bored of that he tried climbing up one of the rain chains to get onto the low, eaved roof. Mother, who was washing the floors upstairs, stuck her head out of a window to scold him, so he went back to harassing the fish. Kiko was busy reading – “Come and see the sky!”; “I’ve seen it. Go away.” He picked up a willow branch brush and set about sweeping the stones in the rock garden that his father had carefully sculpted into something like an image of the mountain. This earned him another telling off and he eventually lay down on his back to stare at the blackened sky and accept that he would simply lie there and die of utter boredom and loneliness, unwanted.
The snapping of a branch pulled him from his internal pouting. There, beyond the gate, was an animal he’d never seen before, not in real life anyway. He recognised it from books and pictures as some sort of elk. However, though it had the goat-like face and the long, straight horns on its head, its fur was a deep reddish brown, the colour of the sun in his father’s Fuji mural.
Sato got up slowly, so as not to startle the animal, though it seemed far from skittish. It wasn’t sniffing at the ground or chewing the grass and neither its tail nor its ears flicked with irritation at the mosquitoes. It was looking right at him, holding his gaze. Sato felt it beckoning him to come closer. He took careful steps towards it, excitement just about taking over fear. It had a thick, powerful neck, covered in so much shaggy red hair it was like a lion’s mane.
As he reached out a hand to touch it, it snorted loudly, making Sato pull back his hand as if it had been slapped with a bamboo switch. The red elk turned and walked back towards the forest. As it reached the treeline it looked over its shoulder, fixing Sato again in its gaze. Then it headed slowly into the forest – shrouded in the shadow of ash. Sato followed.
Slowly, carefully, deliberately, the elk cut a trail through the forest, every so often looking over its shoulder to check if Sato was still there, following behind. For a time they ran alongside the Yoshidaguchi Trail which the worshippers used to climb the mountain and pay respect to the great old mountain, Fuji-san, and the kami that lived in the trees and the birds and the water and all nature. Then they turned and dove deeper into the woodland, tottering over the large roots that grew twisted and gnarled together.
Sato’s feet were sore but he was compelled to keep going, as if pulled along on a leash by the elk, whose woolly red fur was vibrant even in the gloom of the trees and the smog.
They reached a small clearing where the trees and their roots hadn’t grown so close together. The elk padded around in a circle then lay down, resting its chin on the earth. Its nose pointed to a pair of high, sturdy geta, abandoned in the grass. Sato picked up the sandals. Why would someone leave them here, so deep in the forest? he wondered. Was somebody lost out here? A creaking bough in the tree above made him look up where he saw the soles of someone’s bare feet above him – presumably, the owner of the geta. The bough creaked again under the weight of its burden and the gentle breeze.
Sato had returned home carrying the sandals, and the hanging body was cut down from the tree by his father with the help of some of the mountain worshippers. The hanged man was a guest, another worshipper. He had arrived alone and none of the others knew him, so it was down to Sato’s father to stay with the body overnight, so that it would not scream or move around and disturb the other guests. “Not a wink of sleep,” Father complained in the morning, his face grey and more noticeably lined than the day before. Sato hadn’t slept either. Every creak from the forest brought back images of the dangling feet, dirt under long toenails.
That was almost a year ago, and from then on Sato began to see the red elk often, and, helplessly, he followed it. Every time he did he would find another dead person in the forest, until the bodies began to hold no terror for him. In fact, he began to think that it was his duty, a task assigned to him, to find the lost people in the forest. They didn’t always hang themselves.
“Sacrifices.” Father threw his hands up in the air in exasperation. “They’re sacrificing themselves to the bloody mountain.” The number of sacrifices steadily increased over the year, as did the number of eruptions from Fuji-san. “They’re calling it the ‘Suicide Forest’ now. Can you believe that?” Father often complained to Mother. “Well maybe you need to change the name above the door,” she would answer wryly.
Sometimes the human offerings were found near the main trails and would be brought back by fellow pilgrims. The ones deeper in were found by Sato and the red elk, or not at all. “If left out there they could become wandering yokai,” he reasoned to his parents, who had begun to worry less for his safety and more for their own each time he found another body. Nobody else had ever seen the red elk.
The Shogunate (as did Father) blamed the worshippers and their sacrifices for the foul temper of Fuji-san, and were keen to put an end to their queer religion. The ash was carried all the way to the city by the wind. Sato’s father was tired of keeping vigil by the bodies of strangers and an agreement was easily made. Two weeks and Sato would be leaving everything behind, unless, that was, he could solve the mystery of the red elk.
* * *
“You remember that time we found the dead tanuki?” Kiko said. It was one hot summer when they’d found the animal’s stiff little form sheltered under a large tree root. They had snuck up on it, thinking it was sleeping. Its bandit-masked face was tucked into its belly, its striped bushy tail curled around its body, looking every bit like it was sleeping. Tanuki were silly and lazy. Kiko hit it with a rock, which made a sound like a dropped mochi ball hitting the floor. Then they knew it was dead.
“Yeah. Father wouldn’t let us bury it in the garden. How come?”
“It’s the only time I’ve ever seen one up close.”
“That you know of.”
“That I know of, sure. Remember The Monk’s Teapot?”
“Of course.” It had been one of Sato’s favourite stories. A naughty tanuki had taken to sneaking into a monk’s house to steal food, and on one expedition it knocked the monk’s antique teapot from its place on the table, shattering it to pieces on the floor. To cover its trail the tanuki began shapeshifting into the teapot every morning when the monk would serve his tea. It was only caught out when one day the monk decided to fill the tanuki-teapot with camomile and the dozy raccoon dog fell fast asleep, turning back into its original, snoring form right in the middle of the table. “So?”
“So it takes a lot of energy for a tanuki to shapeshift. It can’t hold a form if it’s sleeping, or if it’s dead. That’s how you find out for sure.”
Sato balked at the idea. It was wrong. Kiko was wrong, and she was vicious. She barely hid a smile as she watched his reaction.
“I can’t kill it.”
“Why not? It’s just a silly tanuki.”
“What if it’s not?”
“Then it’s at least evil and you’d be doing good getting rid of it anyway.”
“Evil?” The red elk had never given Sato any bad feelings. Quite the opposite. The suggestion that it was evil irked him as much as the suggestion of killing it.
“How d’you think it knows where the dead people are? It kills them.”
“They kill themselves.”
“Then it tricks them into killing themselves, with its… dark magic or whatever. But do what you like. If the suicides and the eruptions don’t stop we’re gone in two weeks anyway. I say kill it.”
Sato pictured it, lying under the dirty feet of a hanged worshipper, its face calm and melancholy. He thought of its slow, placid movements through the thick of the trees and the way it would turn and give him an encouraging look. Sato had never felt any malevolence from the elk, but he supposed the dreamlike way it pulled him on could be described as some sort of magic. But dark magic?
There was a hut in the garden where Father kept his gardening tools, his fishing rods and glittering flies – “Fresh caught, the biggest fish in the Five Lakes!” In one corner was a bow and arrow that hadn’t seen much use lately. Checking that Mother wasn’t peering out at him from a window, he quickly took up the weapon and ran into the trees a short distance. He hung the bow on a branch and hid the quiver of arrows in a hollow that had been dug by some animal or another. Then he waited.
Days went by, the deadline coming ever closer. When he wasn’t doing his chores he was sitting in the garden, watching the treeline. When Kiko came out to see what he was up to he chased her away. The red elk had never appeared for anyone else before and he doubted it would start now.
A week passed. New guests arrived. Sato sized them up. Which one would make a likely sacrifice? He looked for hints in their faces, but what he’d learned over the last year was that there was no specific type. The people he found were old, young, men, woman, ugly, beautiful, had long hair or long beards, were lame or fit – some had a beatific look as if they’d went peacefully, others were staring out of their skulls in anguish and pain.
The final day of business came. Tomorrow they would be leaving for the city. Father checked through the guest book and found one name missing.
There was the red elk: its horns grazed the bark of the trees, steam rose from its nostrils in the morning chill. Not since the elk’s first appearance had Sato felt such a jolt of excitement and fear. It beckoned to him and, as ever, he followed. He detoured around to where he had planted the bow and arrow and the red elk waited for him. If it was impatient it showed no sign. It looked over its shoulder and when Sato started moving towards it again it set off once more on its path through the trees, never needing to check its direction or divine knowledge from the scents of the earth or the plant-life. It didn’t cock its ears to the sounds of the birds singing or the crack of a breaking branch which, for another animal, could be a grave warning. It took no heed of the bow and arrow.
Eventually they reached their destination. The body wasn’t hanging this time. The young man was slumped at the foot of a tree. His face was a twisted mask of agony. Vomit covered the front of his tunic. Sato was almost sick himself when the stench of shit reached his nose. He’d seen this before: tea brewed with poisonous mushrooms. The man’s cup and teapot were still arranged around a dead campfire, the branches turned to charcoal. As was its custom, the elk rested on its belly, its chin on the grass and its nose, which didn’t so much as twitch at the smell of human waste, pointed towards the body.
Now was the time. If he was ever going to do it, this would be his chance. Sato slotted an arrow into place and teased back the string, which cut painfully into his fingers. He and Kiko had taught themselves how to shoot, taking turns trying to get an arrow to stick into tree trunks. It was difficult but his target was big and close. He pulled back on the string until his arms shook with the effort, and pointed at a space between the elk’s horns.
The red elk looked up at him, its tranquil eyes taking in the tip of the arrow for the first time, and Sato behind it. It took its time standing up, stretching out its forelegs first then its back legs. It gave its head a shake, the hair on its back standing up, then it turned and slowly began to walk away. It slipped between the trees until eventually even the white flash of its tail was lost from sight.
Sato relaxed his arms and lowered the arrow. His back and shoulders were aching from the effort. The smell of the body washed over him again and he felt nauseous. As if falling suddenly in a dream he awoke to the fact that he was alone and lost. The red elk had left him with the poisoned man.
The forest stretched out in every direction around him, endless. He had no idea which way he’d come, having trusted the elk to navigate the dense foliage. But now the elk was gone. Panic started to leak into his stomach and guts and his heart began to race, as if he too had taken poison. He screamed. Birds took flight from the canopy above but no other answer came. Over the tops of the trees Sato could see Fuji-san looking down over the whole country, the silver-haired old man taking in the forest and the trails and the lakes. He headed for the mountain.
How long he walked for he didn’t know but by the time he was scrambling up rocks and slipping on the first patches of icy snow he was well above the trees and in a poor state. His clothes were filthy and torn, his feet and hands were covered in nicks and scratches. Every step caused pain in his thighs, as if screws were being worked into them bit by bit. He had given up lugging the bow and arrow around with him, abandoning it somewhere down below hours before.
The sky was clear and the afternoon sun beat down on the mountaintop. Sato felt neither the heat from the sun nor the cold from the snow under his feet. All he felt was the ache in his joints. They said if a vigil wasn’t held for a corpse it could scream or even move around. That’s how Sato felt: dead but still moving.
Ahead he saw the figure of a man and as he got closer he recognised his father.
“Son, what are you doing up here? You’re filthy! How did you get here? And all by yourself! Where is your sister?”
Sato couldn’t answer any of the questions. He wanted to tell his father about the poisoned man – the missing guest. But he couldn’t do that either. All he could do was cry, and curled up into a ball at his father’s feet.
“I know, son, now that it’s come to it I’m sad to be leaving too. I told your mother I was taking a walk up the mountain to see if our last guest was still up here – but really I came for one last look. Don’t know when or if I’ll ever be back. The forest is beautiful from here. It looks so peaceful. See the movement of the trees when the wind blows? It looks like a wave. That’s why they named it the Sea of Trees. Suicide Forest, pah. I guess I’ll just let the samurai worry about the last guest.”
Sato knew they’d never find him.
* * *
The next day the family were packed and the donkeys – provided by the Shogunate – were saddled up for the ride to Edo, what little belongings they were taking with them strapped to their backs. The balding bureaucrat had returned, this time accompanied by a group of samurai in full armour. Sato and Kiko were equally awed and intimidated by the soldiers and their long katanas whose blades, much to the children’s irritation, remained hidden in sheaths tucked into their obi. The inn, their home, was to become a base for training out in the woods. The samurai would also deter mountain worshippers from making their pilgrimages and their sacrifices.
Towards the end of their first day of travelling they joined the Great Tokaido Road which would take them all the way to the heart of the Edo. Behind them they heard a deep rumbling and the darkening sky was lit up with orange fire. In the morning, the sky was hidden by a cloud of ash which followed them all the way to the city.
Since he’d heard the eruption that first night on the road, Sato knew the samurai would eventually die alone in the forest, on their knees, their foreheads on the ground as if in prayer, having committed seppuku. He knew it as surely as if the knife was in his own guts. The bodies would never be found and the ghosts would wander forever through the trees. The red elk wouldn’t come for them. Not anymore.
Sato had turned his back on his duty, abandoned his mission, and the black sky above him was surely a curse on the future.
Callum McSorley is a writer based in Glasgow, Scotland. He is a graduate of the University of Strathclyde where he studied English, Journalism & Creative Writing. Formerly a journalist working for the International Network of Street papers, he has published stories in street papers (magazines sold by the homeless) all over the world from The Big Issue Japan to The Contributor (USA), covering a wide variety of topics from homelessness and human rights issues to celebrity interviews with the likes of The Pixies, Sebastian Vettel and Irvine Welsh. Learn more about Callum at his website, callummcsorleyauthor.wordpress.com.