In a movement of sudden excitement, my father is making his way toward the trees. With my friend's parents in a heavy sleep, between tents and chairs, there is no opportunity for him to ask permission to take Ren with us, so he just take him. My mother is partially awake, but she has no objections, or at least no mood to say them; so we are now off with Naoki.
"Irresponsible," I commented to the man next to me. The memory of that day was not so clear. Since the reaper had decided that we needed to stay with the adults, I had no idea what I had talked about with Ren that afternoon, but from what I remembered of this trip, it had been full of fun times. The time playing with Ren, the time telling stories in front of a campfire...
And this moment.
"Do You think?" the man questions me. "Your father just wanted to hang out with you guys for a while. So you guys wouldn't get bored, I suppose. Or maybe he just wanted to prove that he had been here before... we'll never know the big truth."
It's true. Maybe this memory could still answer that... if it were a totally true memory.
A thought occurs to me.
"Do these things happen exactly as they were in the past?"
My companion does not answer me for a while. When I start walking, to follow the three men who enter the darkness of the woods, he follows me, slowly, as he says:
"I imagine that you are able to figure this out on your own."
As well as the way to the river, there was no path or anything that would make it easy to get around in this huge forest environment, so Kazuta Naoki, the only adult present on this sudden excursion, opened the way voraciously with a knife he had brought along to walk with us. With wide steps and rigid muscles, the slender man was making his way with ease, making it much easier for the two boys to pass.
"Be careful with the branches, some of them might pierce your sneakers!" he warns, in a stiff voice. The man seems a bit tense, but this sounds more like a bit of concern for what might happen to the boys.
We are behind the adventurous trio. My steps don't mark or make any difference on the ground, but the air and everything around me is extremely vivid, and because we are in an environment untouched by urbanization or signs of deforestation, everything seems more invigorating to me. The beauty of the place makes me intoxicated, with leaves of various hues, and the sky, which becomes darker by the minute, gives me a genuine feeling of freedom.
As Ren had said, observing this every day would be something wonderful.
"Where do you think your father is taking us?" asks Ren to me. He can't hide his excitement about what they are doing.
"I have no idea," I reply. "But it looks like he knows a nice place around here."
"Pay attention to what you're doing!" my father yells. Apparently, the adrenaline is causing the alcohol present in his system to quickly drain from his mind. "Please don't hurt yourselves while we are here!"
"Yes, sir!" shouts Ren in return, mimicking a salute as he walks. He turns to me again, "I really want to see where we end up!"
My then self does not answer him, as he is busy paying attention to the ground. This patch is full of mud, perhaps because we are near some stream or river source, and it seems that some parts are deeper than others. Naoki instructs the boys to follow the path he was making, and they remain silent, paying attention to each step.
"Irresponsible," I repeat, again, and the man next to me closes his eyes, with an expression of giving up.
"Yeah, now it gets hard to deny that" he says. "If it was just you, who is his son, it would still be understandable, but he's with Ren too, and without his parents' knowledge."
I don't quite understand what the man's intention was in showing me these things. If he wanted me to see good things in my father, he must know that he is not succeeding. I can't say he was wasting his time, because that memory is precious, in many ways. But for what I imagine is his goal...
"We're almost there, hang in there!" Naoki announces to the boys. They are finishing walking over the muddy region, and now we are on a terrain that extends upwards, like a hill. And the trees begin to move further away from each other.
We keep going up for what seems like many minutes, and at one point the trees are gone. We are in another open environment, like the one we are camping in. As the sky becomes darker, my companions and I turn on our flashlights, making it easier to see, and my father walks towards the center.
We are, it seems, at the top of a hill. On the other side is a new part of the forest, but on a slope. So really, it is a kind of peak of the grove. There is an open space where we are, and only a few logs lying on the ground and a huge set of rocks keep us company.
"That kind of place is preserved, isn't it?", Ren questions my father.
"Yes, it is. Or this place would be full of undergrowth and you wouldn't be able to see anything."
"And you already knew it would be empty here?"
"Well... no." He smiles, and my friend laughs. Little Kazuta doesn't seem to understand very well; but he smiles too.
"This is the place I wanted to show you" he says. Moving closer to the rocks, he seems to be looking for something. Ren follows him closely, and Kazuta, in contrast to the animation of his companions, remains further back, looking intently at the two of them.
I can imagine what I was feeling at the time, even though I don't remember it very well. Seeing my father and Ren talking like adults in front of me, I was feeling a bit out of place; that's not my father, I had probably thought. Why is Ren getting more attention than me? After all, I was just a child.
"You were just tired" the man in the top hat suddenly says, pulling me out of my own train of thought. "In your mind, the day was pretty much over. You would play something near the tents, and then sleep to prepare for the next day's camping activities. But instead, your father had decided to carry you into the forest. And that was wearing you down."
I assert. I don't remember this memory yet... and that makes me unsure. I knew myself, so probably what I had thought must have been correct... so why had the man made a point of denying it? Could he be trying to manipulate my mind?
"Did these things really happen that way?", I ask the man once again. Surely knowing what I was getting at, a mischievous smile begins to appear on his face, and he doesn't look at me as he questions:
"We are looking into your past. Can't you check for yourself the veracity of what we are seeing?"
His smile is on account of what I have to answer: I can't. It is particularly difficult to remember things that happened when I was so young... but this trip had been something remarkable, a very happy memory from my bitter life. How is it possible, that I don't remember anything?
"You are having the same problem we had with Hina," the gentleman tells me, with his accusatory intonation returning, imposing force in his voice. "Just as you were blocking out memories about your girlfriend, you are having trouble seeing the good times with your father... And that is the fault of your obstinacy in accepting this man. You don't want to accept that you are wrong."
"That's not true! It can't be..."
Faced with my confusion before that man who seems to be omnipotent, I am in no condition to confront him. I don't know what he wants me to see, I don't know if what I am seeing is in fact the truth, and I don't know if I can trust myself.
I have nowhere to turn.
"You're just overthinking it; the young Kazuta felt no anger at all towards Ren, on the contrary. Because he was your best friend and the only one who left you genuinely interested in whatever the subject was, you felt that Ren was becoming part of your family."
He indicates with his head to little Kazuta, who looks at the other two, motionless where he is.
"That's just tiredness."
I don't know if I can trust what he tells me anymore. Maybe those are all just manipulated memories... Come to think of it, how could I have memories of things I haven't experienced? The day at Hina's school, for example; or my mother's conversation with Ren's mother. These things were not in my head, so they can only have come from something created by this man next to me...
"I found it!" exclaims Naoki, exasperated, with Ren at his side. "Come, Takeda, come see!"
The young Kazuta, who was right next to us, runs toward the rocks, and we follow him. Whatever Naoki wanted to show us, it was on the opposite side from where we had come, at the opposite end of one of the rocks.
Behind the rocks was a small log, which had half of its surface covered by the huge rocks. Naoki pulls it out a little, revealing a heart carved into the stem.
"Here is proof that I have been here before," he says.
Inside the heart are two letters: N and K, with a "+" symbol between them. Naoki and Kaori, it seemed.
"Nanami and Kyou..." Naoki says, and the two boys look at him, startled. "Of course I'm joking, Kaori and I did it!"
He laughs at his own joke. But only he is speaking.
The two boys watch, thoughtfully, the log with the carvings. They look fascinated.
"That was a long time ago, the first time we came. Back then, we used to come here just ourselves, without company" he says, looking at the log as he speaks. "Takeda didn't even dream of coming into the world yet."
He looks at me, who watches him, full of fascination. For me, it was a hero's speech, and I could miss absolutely no words.
The same feeling I had when talking to Ren.
"Kaori was quite energetic, she was going up this whole path much faster than I was, and she would rush me whenever we got farther apart." He laughs a little, and seems to feel a little nostalgic. He looks at us once more. "Come, sit down."
The boys approach my father, and in an instant we are the three of us, sitting facing the forest, being stared at by an already darkening sky. Stars seem to dance before our eyes, and the moon, shy, shines with all its tenderness and calmness.
We all look intently at it, as if this was its request.
"When I wrote this on this log, I had no idea what direction my life would take" he comments, before the silence. "It's strange to think about your future, especially when you don't have a starting point. You can create various ideas in your mind, but what will become true? What will disappear amidst all your thoughts? These things have frightened me my whole life."
He runs his hand over Ren's head, stroking his hair. And then he does the same thing to me.
"Don't be like me, children. Don't get lost within the vastness of your minds."
He takes his hand away from our heads, and stares up at the sky. Little Kazuta and little Ren have nothing to say. They can only watch, and listen to what the man, much bigger and older than them, has to say.
And I am listening too. Very attentively.
"I'm sorry, Takeda," he says, but not in a normal way. When he says this, a breath of air comes out of his lungs, like a sigh that was being held back. Saying that, even to children, seemed too heavy for him. "I'm sorry, Ren."
The kids are obviously confused. They don't understand the weight of those words. They don't understand that this man is destroying things that are important to them. But I, today, in the face of this memory, understand.
These excuses are empty.
"He didn't stop."
"What do you mean?"
"He didn't stop... He didn't stop going out with Mrs. Kouyama..." I feel my face heat up. My anger is intensifying again. "He destroyed Ren's family the same way!"
Why, Kazuta Naoki? Why my best friend's mother? You always went out with countless women, had countless women to go out with... So why did you destroy a family? That's unforgivable!
"I will never forgive that man..." I clench my fists, Feeling a tightness in my stomach. "If I have to accept what Kazuta Naoki did to be saved, you can kill me now. Or throw me into hell, I don't know; but I will never forgive my father."
"We should have brought something to eat..." Naoki comments to the children. "Do you guys want to go back already?"
"No, Daddy," my child self says. Innocent, content, this Kazuta compacts with the fox, thinking she is a valiant lion, and it infuriates me. "Here is fine."
"Yes, Mr. Kazuta" states Ren, "Keep telling us about you and Mrs. Tachibana."
The man smiles, and starts to say something about my mother and their romantic stories, but I don't want to listen anymore.
"Is that what you wanted me to see? If it is, that's enough, I want to leave. I told you, I don't intend to accept this empty forgiveness."
I walk towards the forest. I don't know exactly where I am going, but it doesn't matter; this is a memory. It's just a movie, extremely realistic, but still a movie. And the director, the one who can cut the scene and close the feature, is running out of his viewer, and the film cannot be passed without anyone to watch it.
For the first time, I am challenging the one who haunts me.
But he doesn't run after me, he doesn't even try to bring me back. I feel like walking on, continuing what I know is an escape, part of my cowardice, but the lack of rebuke makes me cringe. I have no idea why I am not being scolded, but something occurs to me. Maybe I am not running away; maybe I am just fooling myself. Maybe I am already caught in the trap that has been set for me, and I long for a false freedom.
A freedom so fragile that it can break with any external movement.
"There's something you've got wrong, Kazuta," the man tells me, as I move further away from him and my memory, trying to forget something that is destined to haunt me forever.
Such as Glass
- The End