I half jog, straining up the steep Daisho-in Climbing Path on Mt. Misen, contrasting the verdant Japanese flora with a ridiculous blue running top and burnt orange and brown Cleveland beanie.
Fluorescents dimly twinkle across Hiroshima Bay in the rare sliver views gouged in the forest. The sky is a split wound: happy day powder blue fighting the advancing deeply bruised thunderheads. The endorphin-induced dusk-dream snaps. Survival instincts whisper, “Hey, Jackass! It’s getting dark, and you have to go back down.”
I’m tired. I want to keep going; I want to summit the mountain, but my muscles are on fire from this vertical jog, already spent from a week walking around Japanese cities.
My knee wobbles and I almost fall, so I sit, trying to control my arrhythmic breathing on a step next to a buddha statue with four coins placed around the edges of carved kanji symbols I can’t read. Blood pounds in my ears. I take thought inventory, floating back to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial the day before, where scenes of absolute devastation punched something in my psyche.
Disturbing imagery of the wasteland aftermath, scorched school uniforms on display: shoes, belts, tattered shirts, small mannequins with their waxy skin dripping off bones like pulled pork – faces contorted in melted screams in the foreground of a hellish, rubble environ. A brutal counter-attack; the cost of “Winning”; the United States’ precise, pre-planned means to beat Russia to Super-Power status…
I try to shed the barrage of cynicism, or American guilt, shaking my thoughts like a magic eight ball.
A clean-shaven, chiseled man wearing a beige Marine’s service uniform walks up silently through the trees.
I’m not scared. It’s my Grandfather who died in 2006. He fought on Iwo Jima during WWII, and was shot in the ass on the third day of his deployment. A Purple Heart sits safely under my bed back home, wrapped in a Japanese Flag with an ambiguous rusty stain on it.
Grandpa spent 6 months recovering in Hawai’i missing the end of the war with Japan, but from his elaborated stories, you’d think the man ended the Pacific conflict himself.
His ghost is now the gruff, unsmiling, post-military truck driver of 35 years. His appearance has changed —now wearing light blue jeans, a flannel, and a mesh trucker hat with impressive sideburns jutting down his fuller face.
Grandpa was one of the most racist people I knew —a concept I understood early on to stem from ignorance, and lack of experience/interaction outside the bubble he reigned over, bullying all that occupied: my grandma; my aunts; my mom.
The conundrum: he was my earliest hero. His war stories; his trucker stories about tarantulas in banana shipments. The man taught me everything to know about the patience in fishing, sitting with me for hours on our dock, hooking live earthworms to hook bass. He taught me how throw a wicked slider, bellowing from the crowd at my youth baseball games. He taught me how to properly cheer for Cleveland’s sports teams; he taught me the importance of crossword puzzles, “To keep the memory sharp.”
Sitting next to Buddha, I ask Grandpa how he felt about me visiting the land of the people he deeply hated his entire life, close to where his patriotism was awarded with fragments of lead.
“Do you hate the fact I’m in Japan?”
“Do you still hate “The goddamn Japs” now that you’re dead?”
He doesn’t answer. Remnant whisps of his hair stand in the breeze. He looks the way he comes to me in dreams: pregnant belly, flooded sweat suit with white socks and slippers.
He shuffles an about-face, and silently heads away, consumed by the forest. I’m not sad he’s gone. I let him go. I’m letting this all happen. I am controlling it.
Zen swoops in.
I pretend to know all the concepts of Zen from a two-hour Meditation class in Kyoto.
The class hit home. I let it, like a steered horoscope.
I often let every single thought stampede at once in an exhaustive cacophony —free-jazz, allegro, skeebop-dee-doo — anxiety.
I’m having a good moment.
Let it go.
Be here now.
Deep breath – the wind stops.
Exhale — trees swaying.
I’m in Japan. I’m climbing a mountain.
I, happy man.
It’s getting dark. Fast.
I’ll go when I want to go.
The leaves clatter in applause.
I sit still, despite my mind.
I start running away from Mt. Misen’s summit, back down the mountain, pretending someone is chasing me. Exhilarated, I laugh. Up here, I’m unsupervised, unguarded – freely alone.
Crows caw from somewhere in the seeping darkness. Their pitches bent and dulled by the forest canopy like bullfrog croaks as I whiz by in a state of meditative bliss.
The Zen reverend said not to worry, to go with the birds if the birds come.
It’s now autumnally cold; my favorite weather. Dead leaves scatter in the wind. It feels like Halloween. I feel like a kid.
The crows caw.
Go with the birds.
Caw Caw Caw
“Ichabod! Ichabod!” I yell back at the crows.
The wind responds as I chop my feet down a particularly steep section of stairs. I run down a dock with a fishing pole in my memory.
I run down a porch, ring a doorbell,“Trick or Treat!”
Sugar buzz —my chest sprouts black feathers that poke through my running shirt. My Browns hat flies off—my mouth— now a beak. There’s no one to judge what I look like on this mountain top and my shirt shreds in the wind. There’s no one to tell me I’ve failed and my shoes burst apart. I eagerly concede control to the feathers on my torso, to my fresh-winged finger tips, down to my clicking talons.
I run; I dodge. Tag, I win.
I take off.