Chapter 21:

"Give Me Laughing Gas"

Vibrancy x Vibrancy

Suffice to say, I picked a bad time to quit smoking.

When I awake next morning, the sky is a dark gray and the town of Hoshinomori is windswept and quiet. The storm is most certainly coming, but my phone says not until evening, and since we woke up early, Shizuko and I will have plenty of time to check out the other reason we came to Hoshinomori. There’s a little village an hour north of here by bus home to the largest statue of Yoshiaki Nobuhide in the entire prefecture. It’s attached to a cliffside shrine and garden and looks down from the mountains looming over the town.

However, buses don’t actually run to the Nobuhide Garden anymore. Shizuko and I are at the town’s bike shop, a quiet little store on the verge of closing down. While forking over a good amount of my project fund for the rental, I explain to the owner where we’re heading.

“Be careful,” he warns. “That’s Nobuhide’s territory now.”

I look up from my examination of the bike’s tires. “What do you mean?”

An uncomfortable wind swirls outside the shop. “The last inhabitant in that village died almost ten years ago. It’s completely abandoned. Technically, the prefecture owns it now, but they haven’t even bothered to put up fences or anything. I last went to the Garden about four years ago. Even then, it was overgrown.”

His eyes grow as dark as the clouds. “Lord Nobuhide would not want to see his prefecture sullied like this. All this concrete we’ve piled up and abandoned…our ruin is his vengeance. Beware. His spirit stalks the long shadows and wild grass.”

He says this all with a straight face. As for me, an urban dweller, my experience with evil ghosts and spirits is limited to taking pisses in school toilets while taunting the Hanako-sans who reside in them. Even Suga wouldn’t go in while I did it; the Class Prez decided to leave the school entirely when I announced my intentions. Nobody pulled me into the toilet, but perhaps somebody pulled my entire world into a toilet instead. It was around that time I stopped talking to the Prez, but those thoughts always get relegated back down to the subconscious in due time.

With our bikes in tow, Shizuko and I take a quick ride to the town’s post office. Shizuko hands over a taped box with the giant Aki-chan plushie inside; it feels a bit like sending your kid off to college, except the kid’s stuffed in a box and the parents are on the verge of separation. In contrast to all the bubbling energy of yesterday, a stillness settles in on Shizuko and I as we head out towards the Garden in the mountains.

I don’t think tension would be the right word here. The feeling is more along the lines of “pretty lousy timing”. We both met someone new, and in less than a month, we’ll be going our separate ways. She says it's just a gap year(s), that she'll return to Tokyo one day, but I don't know. The little splotch of color in our lives created by our friendship will be stamped over by gray clouds and kilometers of separation. It’ll be over…just like that. Time used to move so slowly. What happened?

We pass by an unfinished highway leading to nowhere. When Eguchi became governor, he built a highway that skipped over Hoshinomori entirely, instead diverting deeper into the prefecture with a junction at Tsukamoto. By the Eighties, he tried to make up for it with another expressway, this one out of Hoshinomori, but time and fate and economic collapse caught up to him and the project. Rusty signs on this abandoned highway point the way to the city of Soga, the cracked roads existing as a concrete red carpet that never made it through the mountain. But there’s the normal road to the Garden - a road, in fact, that doesn’t go past the Garden, since Nobuhide's statue is located in the crook of the mountains with only one way in or out. Nobody takes this road anymore; there’s nobody to take it in the first place.

But at least the empty road allows us to cycle side-by-side in the middle of it. Compared to the claustrophobic, every-man-for-himself sense of cycling in Tokyo (not to mention Saitama, where the dog-eat-dog cycling experience turns boys into men), having an open road to cruise down helps the spirit a little. Conversely, knowing this road has a definite end hurts the spirit in turn. But at least Shizuko is next to me. Not for long, though. All you can do is sigh and continue to pedal.

We pass by a few roadside shrines eroded by the years as we enter the mountains. Here and there, the gray sky pokes through the dark foliage as we head upwards. The incline isn’t too bad, but Shizuko actually pushes ahead of me. I simultaneously admire and feel emasculated by her athletic ability. She looks back at me; I’m looking forward to hear her tease me, but all she can do is sigh and continue to pedal as well. It continues like this until the road splits in two. One way would take us to a little clearing containing the village; the other takes us up to the Garden, so that’s where we go.

The Garden would’ve been pretty in another life. Or even ten years ago. Grass dominates the flower beds; moss dominates the shrine; Nobuhide’s steely visage dominates the entire thing. His statue lives up to the hype, being several times my height. His face snarls; his blue-greenish color is rusting. The arms are as thick as tree trunks; in one hand he holds a baby, the other a crimson sparrow. I’ve never seen someone so angry with a baby in hand before. The sparrow looks at us with vacant eyes; Nobuhide stares into his valley.

It’s utterly quiet. I can’t say tranquil, though. There are storm clouds overhead; there’s moss growing up the side of Nobuhide. There are no voices; even the crickets and cicadas sound off. Trees and bushes rustle; grass sways in the breeze. Down below, in the clearing, there’s a dead village. Perhaps Nobuhide, from beyond the grave, ordered its destruction.

I understand what was going through the shopkeeper’s mind a little better now. In a city like Tokyo, where nature has been abolished, or grows only where we allow it, we feel utterly in charge. I once felt utterly in charge in my life. But standing here, at the end of the world, I get it now - this is Nobuhide’s world. We can shape nature, tame it, but the second we let our foot off the gas, it comes back like nothing ever happened. There are forces beyond our control. Time and fate have reclaimed this mountain; time and fate will mean Shizuko and I separate. The inevitable force known as the future stands at Nobuhide’s back; when he wills it, there’s no stopping it. The wind kicked up by the future blows out the candle, erodes the pathway.

The past recedes further into memory. The present constantly slips away. Do I hold on tighter and tighter, like the old man says, or let go and let it disappear into memory? I still don’t know. I don’t want to let go of my time here with Shizuko. But the time has to end - it’s out of my hands. This is Nobuhide’s territory now. Perhaps it all is, and perhaps it’s always been.

And then it starts to rain.

Steward McOy