David M. Morini graduated from the MFA program in writing at the California College of the Arts and resides in San Francisco. He served the Poetry Board for Eleven Eleven and has been published in Beeswax Magazine, The Blink Zine, NameCalling.org, Monday Night, BlazeVOX, SHAMPOO, and Writing Without Walls. He tweets at @sarunikai.
Near the edge of Lake Shikotsu in southwest Hokkaido, Yuudai Takahashi claimed a patch of flat, dry land. It was far enough away from other campers to feel secluded but not so far as to be perceived as a creepy loner. Yuudai lined up the poles, snapped out the tarpaulin, and unfolded the brown and tan tent. No one paid him any mind; it wasn’t too unusual for a single guy to be camping.
Sitting half in the tent, facing the lake, Yuudai unfolded a hiking map of Tarumae-zan. He traced with his finger a potential route to his destination: the Lovers’ Shrine. From his bag, he grabbed a melon-bread he bought earlier at the 7-Eleven. He unwrapped the bread and took a big bite out of the sweet pastry.
From his wallet, he removed the STRS50 prize card he won that morning at 7-Eleven. The convenience store chain was running a promotion for the release of STRS50’s new music CD and DVD concert performance in Osaka. For every 500 yen a customer spends, a prize card is won that the customer picks blind from a box. The cards featured any one of the fifty girl members of STRS50, a speech bubble blown from their mouths covered by a sticker that, once removed, would reveal a 7-Eleven prize. Yuudai stopped in on his way to Lake Shikotsu, determined but calm, and bought a 595-yen bento box. When he pulled out his card from the promo box, it was Aki-chan. The clerk took the card, but Yuudai asked him to wait before pulling off the sticker.
“Can I pull a different one?” Yuudai asked.
“But you pulled this prize card,” the clerk said.
“I know, but can I put it back and try for another card?”
The clerk was confused. A line began to form behind Yuudai.
“But you pulled this card,” he said again.
“I realize that, but you see, I want to get the card with Moriko on it, not the Aki card.”
“But the prize card you pulled was this one,” he said, holding up Aki’s gleaming, sensible face.
Yuudai was causing an inconvenience. He felt the weight of the line tug at his back.
Then the manager got involved. The clerk was like a freed bird as he began helping other customers, apologizing to them in rapid-fire.
Yuudai explained himself again. The card hadn’t been used. He wanted to draw again to get Moriko Tachibana, Number six of fifty in the STRS girls lineup.
“But you pulled this card,” the manager said. “It says right here,” and she pointed to the promotion sign explaining clearly what the rules and procedures were for the promotion. The clerk he first dealt with excused himself and took the prize card box for a customer who was buying two magazines and an iced tea. “For every 500 yen you spend, you can pick one card from the box. You bought the bento lunch for 595 yen and you picked this card.” She laid Atsuko down on the counter, pulled the sticker off, and showed Yuudai that he won a free red bean paste popsicle. “See!” The manager turned around and pulled the popsicle from a refrigerator. “You won a prize. It’s simple.”
It took Yuudai four more chances buying items at least 500 yen: chocolate, a manga collection, a Mens’ Egg magazine, beer, and onigiri. He pulled a Yuki card, a Sayaka card, a card with all the members, until finally he got his Moriko Tachibana card when he bought four melon breads. Before the manager could pull the sticker off, he stopped her.
“No, leave it.”
“But your prize is underneath,” she insisted.
He grabbed the card away from her, leaving the store with it and the four melon breads.
Here, at the water-kissed base of Tarumae-zan, Moriko on the 7-Eleven card smiled up at him. The sticker on her speech bubble was unsullied. Yuudai traced the outline of her signature large bow with his finger. Moriko loved him for taking her here to the lake, to enjoy a view of Hokkaido from the top of Tarumae-zan, a dormant but still active volcano.
“And I have a special surprise,” he said.
Moriko, lying on her stomach before him, crossed her feet at the ankle. She rested her chin on her fist and cocked her head to the side. “What might that be?” she asked.
“Is that who I think it is?” a voice shouted from the lake.
Yuudai shielded his eyes from the ambient glare off the water. A man paddled a kayak alone. “Yuudai! How are you?”
“Hey,” Moriko said. “Is that the chunky guy who works at the media rental store? With the thinning hair and soft mustache?”
Yuudai trudged toward the edge. It took him a few moments to recognize the man; he wasn’t in the requisite store uniform, cobalt blue polo shirt etched with the lemon yellow logo. It was, as Moriko pointed out, one of the workers from his neighborhood Tsutaya.
“What are you doing here?” the man continued to shout. “It’s me. Iwate!”
Yuudai was relieved he could avoid the embarrassment of not recalling the store clerk’s name.
“What are you doing here?” Yuudai asked, folding Moriko back in his wallet.
“I’m here to collect those late DVDs!” he yelled back and laughed. “Just kidding!”
“Here,” Iwate called out. “Help me with this kayak.” The kayak wobbled, stirring the edge of the water. Iwate grabbed for Yuudai’s shoulder. His hand landed heavy, nearly knocking Yuudai off balance. The two pulled the plastic boat ashore.
As Iwate was making for the tent, Yuudai asked if they ought to turn the kayak upside down. “It’s just, I’ve seen it done like that in the movies.”
“Oh! Sure, yeah, I guess we should. In case it rains.”
Together they flipped the one-man boat and rested it against some rocks. The two walked together toward the tent.
“I only brought one chair,” Yuudai said.
“You’re camping alone?”
“Yeah, and you?”
“No, I’m with my wife on the other side of the lake.”
His wife? It was a surprise to hear that Iwate was married. He didn’t seem the marrying kind. Not that he was ugly, but he seemed so childish and unkempt, a slob. His job at the rental store certainly didn’t win him any extra points. What kind of girl married a guy like Iwate?
“My wife is an amateur cartographer and likes to visit various lakes and mountains. She draws her own maps of all the places we visit and embroiders them on pillows. It’s kind of weird, but it keeps her busy.”
“I see.” Yuudai had never heard of such a strange hobby. As long as he remained noncommittal, maybe Iwate would get the picture and go back to where he came from. He didn’t want to brush off or anger him. Yuudai wanted to stay in his favor so Iwate would continue pardoning his inevitable and future late fees.
Yuudai took a deep breath. “I come out here from time to time to enjoy the quiet, you know. The lake is so peaceful.”
“Yeah, isn’t it?” Iwate said. From the pile of Yuudai’s things, he picked up the map of Mount Tarumae. “Are you going up Tarumae-zan?”
“Yeah, I haven’t before,” but Yuudai didn’t finish before Iwate folded up the maps and tucked them in his back pocket.
“Yuudai, you don’t need maps. Look, I’ve been up and down and all over that mountain. I’ll take you. Besides, you should never go hiking alone. You must go with a buddy. When are you headed up there?”
“Well, I was going to go after setting up camp.”
“That’s perfect,” Iwate leapt for his kayak, turned it over, and pushed it into the water. “I’ll get my stuff, some supplies, and I’ll meet you back here.”
Yuudai stood at the shore and watched Iwate weave and curve along the lake until finally he disappeared behind a growth of trees.
. . .
By the time Iwate came back, it was mid-afternoon, a little late for a mountain hike.
“Don’t worry!” Iwate said. “We’ll be up and down before you notice the light changes.” Iwate patted the backpack he brought. “And if by some slim chance we get stuck, I have an aluminum blanket, a bunch of granola bars, water—anything we’d need.”
This guy is too much, Yuudai thought.
Iwate insisted on driving though his car was so compact and light that it groaned when faced with the slightest incline. Yuudai cracked a joke, “Did you convert an old washing machine to make this car?” but the vehicle was too loud for Iwate to hear.
Iwate leaned over while trying to focus on the curves of the road leading to the base of the mountain. “Eh?” he asked.
. . .
The afternoon grew hazy with a temperate humidity, especially as they drove through the dense, leafy forest at the base of Tarumae-zan.
“What about bears?” Yuudai yelled over the car’s clatter.
“What about them?”
“Aren’t there bears in these woods?”
“Bears? No, no bears.”
“Well, the guidebook I read mentioned bears. So, I brought this.” Yuudai showed Iwate a small plastic clicker. He pressed it repeatedly, the snap sounds rivaling the grinding of the car’s engine.
“Let me see that,” Iwate said.
Yuudai handed the clicker over and Iwate tossed it out the window.
“Are you dumb? You want to stay as quiet as possible around a bear. You know, that way they don’t think you’re a threat, and they ignore you as if you were a benign tree with legs.”
Iwate took a hard turn to the left, the car striking a pothole. The two of them bounced in the air. Yuudai braced himself against the ceiling with his hand.
“A benign tree with legs?”
“Don’t worry! We won’t see any bears.”
They were nearing the trail entrance parking lot when they passed a bright yellow sign with a black profile of a bear on his haunches, mouth open wide.
“No bears, huh?” Yuudai said.
“They nap during the day,” Iwate said. “Like lazy public servants.”
How did I end up in this car with this guy?
“You were too nice to say ‘no’,” Moriko said.
. . .
Iwate’s car was one of only a few in the parking lot. Yuudai savored the lush scent of the wet summer forest while Iwate inhaled intensely and pounded his chest like a gorilla.
They stood in front a large map of Tarumae-zan framed in stained tree trunks. It was a crisscross of color-coded trails like the wrinkles in the palm of a hand. A green line rimmed the mouth of the inactive volcano, depicting the sulfur flats trail.
“Your wife didn’t want to come?” Yuudai asked.
“Her? No, she’s been here before.”
Iwate had forgotten to bring the map he took, so Yuudai grabbed a free photocopied one from a plastic box at the trail’s entrance.
“You won’t need that with me here!” Iwate exclaimed. With his collapsible walking stick, Iwate pointed out the trail they planned to take, tapping the Plexiglas that protected the larger map. Yuudai compared it with the photocopy. They didn’t look to match.
“I would think having a cartographer here, amateur or otherwise, would be helpful.”
“You want to see the sulfur flats, right?” Iwate asked.
“I mostly want to get to the shrine on the edge.”
“Ah, the Lovers’ Shrine. Who do you want to propose to? Not me I hope!”
The small shrine located at the edge of the volcano was made famous by a scene in a movie where a couple got engaged by securing a padlock to a fixture in the shrine. Since then, couples have flocked to the shrine to announce to the volcano and the world listening below that they loved each other forever and always, and together, they’d lock their love in this secure, symbolic fashion.
Yuudai didn’t plan to ask Moriko to marry him but he wanted to leave a token and confess to the spiritual plane his love for her. He brought a padlock that was part of a diary set he purchased from the STRS50 gift store after one of their performances. The lock was light plastic and shaped like an American football. A sticker of Moriko, smiling with her finger pointing jauntily to the sky, covered the front. Her bow, a large one of red plaid, was too big and moved out of the frame, giving the impression that Moriko couldn’t be contained, too big even for official merchandise.
Yuudai and Iwate weren’t ten minutes into the hike before Iwate was out of breath. Yuudai felt his own blood rush, temperature rise, and a strain on his hamstrings, but was far from heavy breathing or ready for a rest. He thought for someone who went up and down and all around this mountain, Iwate sure seemed out of shape. Maybe he smoked a lot.
“We’ll rest here and get use to the altitude,” Iwate said.
“How many times have you been up here?” Yuudai asked.
“Oh, a bunch of times. I came last year with a group of guys from Tsutaya for a leadership retreat.”
“A leadership retreat?”
“Yeah.” Iwate took a deep breath and exhaled, long and tired. “To help us with our management skills, customer service, member bonding, things like that.”
Yuudai couldn’t imagine such a retreat did any good. He had little faith in Iwate as they finished their break and continued up a gravel path toward the mouth of the sleeping volcano.
They made their way into the crown of clouds that shrouded the mountain. A short distance to their left, the ground sloped into a gray fog, the color of socialist concrete. Yuudai let Iwate trudge farther and farther until his bright green jacket melted into the fog.
Like a ghost or a mirage, the Lovers’ Shrine appeared just off a slight turn. It began as a bruise in the middle of gray and slowly gained shape as Yuudai pushed closer and closer. His boots scraped the ground like a terrible dream where you can’t run or walk fast enough.
Iwate was already at its entrance, bent over on his haunches and taking long sips from his water bottle.
“Well, we made it!” he said before barking out more coughs.
The Lovers’ Shrine was small, mostly a pile of rubble with a wooden hatch covering a cobbled together altar. It looked more like a bunker or an ammunition shed. Only when Yuudai stepped into the shrine did he notice the noise of the wind outside. It was quiet until talons of breeze found cracks in the wall. A few supplicatory candles stood tall and forgotten on the altar and hung above were bundles of sage.
Surrounding the altar, spread out spherically like an explosion, were padlocks of every shape and design. Everywhere padlocks had messages etched, marked, dog tags spun on drafts of wind, messages of love and relationships. Yuudai lifted one closest to him, a purple lock with a circular dial. On the back was chipped paint but he could still read the initials “D.M. + Y.H.” The lock was attached to an iron rod that supported the structure.
Yuudai could hear the faint crunch of dirt before Iwate appeared in the entrance. “Looks like a hundred bicycles got stolen from here,” Iwate said.
“Looks like,” Yuudai said.
“You got a girl?” Iwate asked.
“Shouldn’t she be here with you? Isn’t that the deal with this place?” Iwate flicked at a row of locks.
“Can I—I thought I would…”
“Ah! You want privacy. I see,” Iwate said. “I’ll wait for you outside.”
He left with his shoulders slightly slumped.
What did he expect? We’d snap on a lock together?
In front of the altar, he didn’t know what to say. He held the lock in the palm of his hand with his index finger through the hinge.
“Just say it,” Moriko whispered.
A sheen of cold licked his skin and he pulled his jacket closer to his neck.
“Though you are so far away, I know we’ll be near to each other one day. Let’s consider this to be our wedding day, you and me. I mean, you’re so busy and protected, I don’t know when we’ll finally be alone together. But with the lock, I thee wed.”
Yuudai found an exposed piece of rod and snapped the lock into place, kissing the sticker and Moriko’s gleaming smile. He then snapped and broke the stem of the plastic key in the lock, keeping it closed for eternity.
“I’ll always be with you now,” Moriko said from behind his shoulder.
“But I can’t see you. I want to see you.”
“You’re my husband now. You will always be front and center, taking care of me. There’s no need to see me. I’ll be in your heart.”
“Is that not enough?”
Yuudai backed away from the wall and watched the lock recede into the others. He spun around trying to catch sight of her but she always seemed just out of reach. A tip of a finger, a strand of burnt amber hair.
Outside, he saw Iwate up at the crossroads by a carved sign and pacing back and forth. Yuudai saw he was holding a cell phone up to the clouds.
“Get it done?” Iwate asked as Yuudai approached.
“Yeah, I think so.”
“I wish you the best.” He continued pointing his phone toward the sky. “Can you get a signal? What service do you have?”
“Softbank.” Yuudai opened his phone and he too got no signal.
“Oh well, no big deal. Shall we walk the rim and continue to the edge of the sulfur flats?”
“Maybe we should go back the way we came. It’s getting a little late, and I only came here to go to the shrine.” His tone had the bite of a teacher to a student, stern and a little exasperated.
Iwate stood a little higher than Yuudai on a slight elevation in the soil. “You’re odd. You ‘sort of’ have a girlfriend and you wanted to come to Lovers’ Shrine?” He continued, “I mean, we hiked all this way. There’s plenty of time to finish. It’s all flat and downhill from here. We walk the rim and make our way down the mountain along its eastern ridge into the valley. Back where we started.”
Yuudai wanted to get rid of him as fast as possible but weighed out whether he wanted an irritated Iwate to spend a half hour with or an appeased one for two.
“Okay, let’s do as you suggest.”
“Excellent. I knew you’d see it my way.”
The trail thinned with clouds as thick as cotton on either side. They passed giant boulders once thrown from the volcano itself.
“You can tell…” Iwate said, his breath only allowing him to speak three syllables at a time, “that Tarumae-zan … is a fairly … new volcano … comparatively … speaking … The rocks … are oxidized iron … formed in the … early stages of … Earth’s … development.”
“Is that right?” Yuudai again allowed Iwate to walk farther ahead. It was more difficult this time because Iwate was growing tired and seemed to be keeping a close eye on Yuudai.
The farther Yuudai got from the Lovers’ Shrine, the more he felt like a marathon runner after the race. Locking the padlock was the final token that contained and sealed his obsession, bringing his love for Moriko into the world in a real, physical way. He moved his legs along the path, the dormant volcano to his left that would likely remain asleep for thousands more years, the boulders it had once spewed hot and burning orange along the landscape. His love for Moriko was now a part of this volcano’s history.
“Up ahead is a moss garden. Not a cultivated garden exactly, but a natural one. I think you’ll like it,” Iwate said.
Having Iwate here with him suddenly felt natural. He’d been a witness to his completion. He could see how someone, like his wife, would appreciate Iwate. He was tenacious and had an ignorant optimism, like a loyal dog.
“Yes,” Yuudai said. “That does sound nice.”
The ground sloped and started its decline down and the smell of sulfur became as strong as passing a lady’s perm salon.
“If you veer off the path, you’re likely to stumble into one of the flats and you’ll suffocate,” Iwate said. The giant grin he wore oozed with pride of his knowledge.
“Thank you for the warning.”
“Just keep following.”
It was nearing four o’clock, still plenty of time to make it back to the parking lot when the path created a crossroads: one leading to the left that climbed farther up and, to Yuudai’s sense of direction, north, while the path to right would head south back into the valley. Iwate marched up the incline north.
“Hey,” Yuudai called out. “Shouldn’t we be going the other way?”
Iwate turned around with a confused look similar to when they had been in the car. “I thought we were going to walk the eastern ridge back down?”
“Wasn’t that what we just did?”
“Hardly!” Iwate climbed up a rock and stood, scanning the skyline. “Nope, this trail goes back up onto the ridge and then we can walk it down.”
“Well, I’m ready to go back down now.”
“We can’t go that way. That path leads into the valley, into that forest. We’d never find our way out. Besides, it could lead to the flats. Smell that smell?”
“How could I not?”
“Believe me. I’ve done this before. The path goes back up the mountain a bit and then it’s a sure shot back down toward the parking lot.”
Yuudai stood at the elbow of the path. The wind whipped and pulled at his jacket but still he felt warm, his limbs and muscles burning from the hike. “I’m going to look the map over.”
“Go ahead,” Iwate said. He jumped off the rock and started his climb up. “I’m going this way. Catch up when you’re ready.”
Yuudai watched as he faded into the clouds. Iwate whistled and he hated that. Why could he not just wait for him to look over the map? He didn’t like the sensation that he was a child being led by an obstinate parent.
The paper map he pulled from his back pocket had clearly been a photocopy of a photocopy, multiple generations down. The lines were blown out, the legend nearly incomprehensible. If he found the Lovers’ Shrine, he should be able to locate where he was now. The trouble was the Lovers’ Shrine was nowhere on the map. He guessed where the shrine was but had no idea where they were now or how far they had traveled. He thought to call someone at that moment but still couldn’t get a signal.
“What’s the matter, Taka-kun?”
“I like it when you call me that.”
Moriko smirked and cocked her head to the side. “I know.” Her hand touched his cheek and she fondled the ridge of his eye with her thumb. “What’s the matter?” she asked again.
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know where to go.”
“I see,” she drew her arm to her chest and chewed on her thumbnail. “This is a predicament. And, as your Lovers’ Shrine wife, I must help you.”
Yuudai laughed. “Yes, I guess so.”
“You have three choices. One. You could follow Iwate and the benefit of that is he’s been on the mountain before.”
“So he says.”
“So he says. Two. You stay where you are and either wait for him or wait for someone else.”
“But it’ll get dark in a few hours and I don’t expect anyone else to show up.”
“That’s reasonable reasoning. Three. You follow your own path.”
“Iwate claims this path would lead to sulfur flats and I could suffocate.”
“So he claims,” she said.
“So he claims.”
“Why don’t you see what it says on my 7-Eleven card,” she suggested.
Yuudai took the card out from his wallet. There Moriko stood, feet planted firmly.
“I left you a message there,” she said.
He picked at the sticker and peeled it off. He won a box of Rilakkuma chocolate covered biscuits. Rilakkuma, a cartoon bear, nibbled biscuits while lounging on a blanket, crumbs scattered on his chest. Sitting on the bear’s foot was a small, yellow chick Kiiroitori.
“Thank you, Moriko,” he said.
Suddenly he knew what to do. Though he didn’t trust Iwate, nor did he like him, he decided it would be better to be lost on a mountain with someone else than alone. It was another pair of eyes scouting for a way out or for wild animals, and there was someone else to blame if it all went wrong.
He looked toward the ascending trail and the ridge that Iwate claimed was the way out. He saw the faint bobbing color of Iwate’s violent green jacket and could hear his whistling on the wind. Yuudai plunged his boots into the dirt and pushed himself toward Iwate.
Yuudai was comforted that the trail that Iwate was so convinced led to the parking lot was recently tramped by others. Hiking boots and sneakers left a very particular imprint in the dust, ridged like the mountains they conquer. As they climbed higher and higher, the trail thinned along with the air they were breathing. They passed another boulder, this one marked in a splotch of white paint, and they walked over a thick, black cable that ran through the red rubble and into the fogged ether. Telephone to the dead, Yuudai thought.
Yuudai paused for a moment while Iwate kept pushing forward. His watch suggested it was now five o’clock.
They reached the top of the ridge and the trail evaporated. Iwate continued. Whatever “trail” Iwate followed led into rough, mangled brush. There were no more footprints, no clear disturbance on the soil or gravel. No one had been up here in a very long time.
“We’re lost,” Yuudai said.
“We’re not lost. Look the trail keeps going over here.” Iwate started down the slope toward brush that seemed to go on for miles into treetops and endless kilometers of forest.
Yuudai, if only on a hope that Iwate might be right, followed and found him among scattered, stunted plants and eddies of pebbles.
“This isn’t a path. This is nothing,” Yuudai said.
The wind howled.
“I think we should keep moving,” Iwate pleaded. “Into the brush. It’s getting dark and we need to get down. This should be the quickest way.”
“The quickest way to what? Spending a long and wet night on top of a mountain? We should go back the way we came, the way we’re sure of.”
“But it’ll get dark before we make it. It took us hours to get here.”
“And it’ll be all downhill.”
“We could stumble and break an ankle. I can’t carry you.”
The two of them stood face-to-face but far enough apart where hands or arms couldn’t reach.
“We shouldn’t leave the path.”
“It’s over here. Through the brush. It goes back down the mountain.”
“It’s getting dark.”
“This is the way out.”
. . .
Iwate entered first. It was a glade walled by shin-biting plants and arthritic trees, trees that combed a swift, fleeing fog.
Then, as if someone tipped over a table, Yuudai tumbled to the ground. His cheek and shoulder struck then scraped against the dirt. All the air flung out of his lungs. Then the ground was swinging above him. One ankle was gripped, his pants taut against his leg. He was upside down, swinging from a tree.
“Iwate!” Yuudai gasped. “Help me!”
Iwate steadied him by the shoulders. From a back pocket, Iwate pulled out a rag and forced it into Yuudai’s mouth. The linen of what felt like an old T-shirt ground between his teeth. Iwate secured the gag with another rag, the knot of which slammed against the back of his head. Yuudai tried swinging his arms but his muscle command was confused and inversed. Iwate grabbed Yuudai’s flailing, confused arms and latched them together with cold metal rings.
Iwate bound Yuudai’s legs together with rope, utilizing a step stool he pulled from the bushes. Yuudai pushed his body in an attempt to knock Iwate over, but each try invited Iwate to swiftly kick him in the torso. Iwate finished and left Yuudai to swing from the tree like a punching bag.
“This is one elaborate setup,” Moriko said. He could feel her leaning against him.
“I need you to help me,” Yuudai said.
“I’ll do what I can, my love,” she said.
Yuudai yelled through his throat. Iwate ignored him. He was spinning, slowly. Clockwise. Then counterclockwise. A sweeping view of the upside-down clearing. Then Iwate making preparations.
Iwate pulled items from his pack: a plastic container, a water bottle of yellow liquid, and a small tackle box. He moved like a bomb diffuser, each motion practiced and hurried.
“You have to remain quiet,” Iwate whispered. He opened the tackle box and removed a fishing line, a pair of scissors, and a small hook.
“You know all those late fees you had at Tsutaya?” Iwate asked. He attempted to feed fishing line through the eye of the hook but his hands were shaking. “All those times you brought back STRS50 DVDs days, sometimes weeks, late?” He succeeded and fed a fair length of the line through the eye, securing it with a knot. With the scissors, he snipped off the slack. “I erased all of those for you.” Iwate said. He put aside the hook and line. He popped open the container. “I bet you never even noticed. What did you think? They disappeared like magic?”
From the container he drew a whole salmon, gripping it by the gills. The fish hung from Iwate’s hand, its wide eye glaring at Yuudai.
“I bet you’re wondering why.” Iwate used the fish to lightly slap Yuudai in the face. “Aren’t you curious?” He hit him harder. “Huh?”
“You better answer him,” Moriko said.
Yuudai found it difficult to breathe upside down, a rag stuffed in his mouth. His head felt heavy and swollen. He tried his best to nod in agreement.
“Because I know you. We’re the same.”
“I doubt that,” Moriko said.
“I too am a fan of STRS50. I know Moriko Tachibana is special to you. That was obvious. I found all the magazines you tore pictures from. I know you stole pictures of Moriko.” Iwate placed the fish on the lid of the container and reached for the hook. He stabbed the hook deep into the fleshy side of the fish. “I have my heart set on Narumi Wakahisa,” he said.
“Of course he would,” Moriko said. She gently wiped spittle from the side of his mouth. “All the creepy guys like Narumi.”
“And us STRS fans got to stick together.” Iwate threaded the hook and line underneath the spine of the fish. He did this several times, creating a mother-of-pearl colored handle large enough to get around someone’s head. “We have a connection, you and me.” From his bag, Iwate pulled out a large serrated knife.
Yuudai shook in rhythmic motions as Iwate sawed through the rope that tethered him to the tree. He fell to the ground.
“My boss caught wind of what I was doing and he fired me.”
Yuudai squirmed like a snake in the dirt hoping to shake loose something, the rope, the cuffs, anything to get him mobile. Iwate stood over him.
“You didn’t even notice I was gone, did you?”
Yuudai kept squirming. He cramped his abdomen and tried to pull himself along with his chin.
“I watched from my car as you kept going into Tsutaya,” he said.
Yuudai felt a tug at his legs. He peered back and saw Iwate tying the frayed rope to the base of a tree.
“You walked in and you walked out without so much as a frown.”
Yuudai was tired, and his body gave in and relaxed. Moriko bedded him down on pebbles and weeds and let the wind tuck itself against him.
“Just the same old Yuudai going about his business foraging for pictures of Moriko Tachibana.”
“It’s so romantic,” Moriko whispered.
“Then my wife left me. She said I was useless without a job. What am I left with? What else do I have?”
Iwate pulled on the rope, dragging Yuudai along the ground. He heaved Yuudai up and leaned him against the trunk. Iwate took the fishing line and salmon and put it around Yuudai’s neck. The smell was pungent. Yuudai tried shaking the fish from its line but it stared back up at him, glassy eye and frowning mouth.
“That fish is going to attract the wrong kind of attention,” Moriko said.
“I bet you’re wondering how I knew you’d be here. I bet you’re thinking to yourself, ‘How did he figure it out?’” Iwate picked up the bottle of yellow liquid. He poured most of it out in a wide circle around the tree. He tossed the rest of it into Yuudai’s lap. The rich smell was unmistakably urine. “Oh, yes,” Iwate said. “Oddly, human urine attracts bears. We’re so messy that they know where humans piss, there’s food to eat.”
“You once told me,” Iwate continued, “you often go camping. ‘To spend time with your girlfriend,’ you said. Ha! You don’t even have a real girlfriend.”
“But you do have a wife,” Moriko said to Yuudai.
“So, with no job and no wife, I followed you. I followed you to every campsite. Until you came to Lake Shikotsu near Tarumae-zan. It was only a matter of time.”
Iwate sat down on the tackle box. Beads of sweat brimmed along his forehead and he heaved, struggling with the thin air.
“Now we wait. Together.”
“I need you to untie me, Moriko,” Yuudai said.
“I wish I could, my love.”
They stayed there, quiet in the clearing.
Somewhere in the brush, through the gray, a movement stirred. It was difficult to discern what it was. Everything looked to be the same color, a strain of gray, green, and brown.
Something nosed aside some plants, lifting a giant snout into the air, sniffing the wind and the salmon and urine stench, and it became clear what the beast was.
“How does something that big live unnoticed in these woods?” Moriko said.
Iwate stood up from the tackle box.
A sniveling roar, like nothing Yuudai had ever heard, erupted from the bear. It slipped below Yuudai’s skin and trembled his bones, rattled like an earthquake. He noticed a dark stain growing on the front of Iwate’s pants.
“Ha-ha!” Moriko laughed. “Now he’ll smell like bear bait, too!”
Iwate stood stunned. Yuudai grappled at the shackles that held his hands. He rubbed his legs together, anything to get away.
The bear lumbered toward the two of them. Its fur hung loose like an oversized coat.
“It looks awfully hungry,” she said.
Yuudai wanted to close his eyes, for it to be all over. “If this is it, I want it to be quick and painless,” he said to Moriko.
“It’s good to want things,” she offered.
Iwate grabbed another fish from the container and threw it toward the beast just out of reach and close to Yuudai.
Yuudai yelled from his throat hoping that would be enough to scare it away. The fish around his neck looked up at him, as if to say, “I’m sorry. I had no part in all this.”
The bear gracelessly ambled to the fish on the ground, sniffed its scales from mouth to fin and then grabbed it with its paws. It ripped out the guts with its teeth and gnawed on the head. When it finished it looked around for more.
Yuudai shook as his heart pounded against his chest.
“Your heart is a little bird,” Moriko said. “A little bird trying to break free of its cage.”
“You’re not helping,” Yuudai said.
The bear sensed the salmon pendant Yuudai wore and ambled toward him. Its brown eyes assessed the fish around his neck and the man who wore it. Two brown eyes, Yuudai thought, like a dog’s eyes. Its slobber, warm and viscous, fell on his face. The smell of its breath was pungent, bits and gore of the salmon it ate clung to the fur around its mouth.
Iwate’s eyes cheered. Yes! Get him! Eat him!
It bent down and sniffed at the salmon around Yuudai’s neck. Its snout knocked Yuudai in the face as though he were nothing more than branches in the way of a meal.
Iwate threw another salmon at the bear and this time hit it in the face.
The bear stood on its legs. It roared, its mouth a pink tunnel of white teeth and a snake-like tongue.
“I need you, Moriko. I need you now more than ever,” Yuudai said.
The bear turned toward Iwate. It galloped as he tried to get away. The bear swung its arm with paw and banana claws, striking him in the shoulder and the side. Iwate hit the ground like a dropped sandwich.
Yuudai watched as the bear stood on its legs again and roared at his opponent. It stomped on him with its arms. It stomped and stomped and stomped.
Are they arms or front legs on a bear? Yuudai thought.
“That’s the beautiful mystery of bears, isn’t it?” Moriko said.
Yuudai wiggled himself out of the fish collar he wore and let it drop to the dirt. He kicked at it, pushing it as far away from him as possible. He turned his face from the gruesome scene a few meters away, but he still heard bones breaking and the bear grunting.
“I can help you now, Lovers’ Shrine husband,” Moriko whispered.
A shadow began to blanket him. It absolved him of his sight and encased him in warmth, peace, and contrition. He no longer saw or heard the approach of the sniveling bear and the scent of fish and blood it brought. He only heard the noise of the wind that took on the wondrous texture of applause and then Moriko’s shadow devoured him completely.