The rising sun twinkled as it emerged from its hiding place behind Mt Kenashi, making Hana wince.
She’d always felt sorry for Mt Kenashi – the hairless mountain. Its big sister Mt Fuji had the perfect posture, sides flowing gracefully up to meet Amaterasu, the goddess of the sun and the universe.
While Kenashi was unremarkable in appearance: a big dollop of rock simply fallen from the Heavens and forgotten, the remains of Play-Doh used to lovingly craft Fuji. She didn’t even have a crown of snow like her famous big sister.
People used Kenashi to stand on and admire beautiful Fuji, oblivious to her feelings. Tourists didn’t know or care about Kenashi, and they certainly didn’t tag her on Instagram.
There were no shrines on her slopes, and she had no place in legends or history.
Hana wanted to comfort Kenashi, somehow wrap her arms around her barren sides and say: “I love you. I’ll keep you warm even if the trees won’t.”
Hana didn’t have a sister, but Kenashi had been there her whole life, an example of dignified humility, watching over her and her family. Seeing Kenashi through her bedroom window every morning made her feel less lonely and she felt anxious on cloudy days when the grey fluff separated them.
Once, Hana’s mum had heard her talking to Kenashi late at night. The cold expression on her mum’s face scared Hana, making her feel like a freak or a loony. The kids at school – and even the teachers – looked at her like that sometimes.
Hana had tried to explain that Kenashi was her friend and her mum had become even more upset, slow tears splodging her makeup.
“You’ll make new friends when you go to big school. It’s not long now.”
Her mum had tried to make a smile, but Hana could see underneath the hastily painted mask.
Narusawa was a small place, with a small elementary school and no high school. So Hana’s world would have to grow beyond the sullen village and their ugly house sitting on its edge.
Her parents had often warned her to stay away from the forest cocooning their home, but without saying why. It was one of those parental orders you were just supposed to obey.
Hana didn’t think there were any dangerous animals around. If there were, they definitely would’ve told her. Like the first time they’d gone to the beach and her mum had quashed all excitement with a stern caution about sea snakes. After that, Hana had only dared to swim for a few minutes, eyes constantly interrogating the water for serpents.
Maybe they were worried she’d eat berries or something from the forest. Or get lost and not find her way back.
Anyhow, she tried to be a good girl and the last thing she wanted was to disappoint her parents, but home really was boring, especially since Grandma had died. Grandma used to make her laugh and pull faces behind her parents’ backs, her many wrinkles contorting themselves into a different face altogether. And she’d read her favourite books to her, doing different voices and changing the endings into silliness. Sometimes she even slipped Hana chocolate bars when her parents weren’t looking.
But Grandma had eventually gone to join their ancestors, nudged along by cancer, according to her parents said.
And so one day, towards the end of the summer holidays, to relieve her boredom she’d stepped into the shaded woodland beyond the garden fence. It instantly felt like another, much wilder world after the meticulously manicured lawn, framed by roses, marigolds and flowers she didn’t know the names of.
Imposing pine trees vyed for the sun goddess’ attention, a slow-motion race out of sync with mammalian time. Only patches of sunlight fell through to the forest floor here and there, forming an unsolvable puzzle and gently toasting the innumerable fallen pine needles. Hana's feet kicked the needles up and then left them to gravity’s whims, and she thought about the tiny creatures whose lives she’d just turned upside down.
She imagined she was Godzilla, bashing her way through Insect City and leaving devastation in her wake. Tonight, Insect TV would be full of clips of her trashing pine needle houses and soil streets, filmed by woodlice on their phones and spider news crews.
She started to climb a tree, as she’d seen a giant monkey do with a tall building on some ancient film.
Her mum’s panicked shriek snapped her daydream and made her lose her grip on the tree. She fell the short distance to the ground, crushing more citizens of Insect City and grazing her leg on the tree’s bark.
Running back to the dull grey fence, she realised there was nothing to help her over on this side – and she’d be forced to call her mum and reveal her disobedience.
She reluctantly sent the word forth from her mouth: “Mum.”
“Mum, I’m here. In the forest.”
Her mum found her and lifted her over the fence. Hana could see her mum was too stunned to admonish her and thought she’d keep quiet to avoid breaking the spell.
“Please never go back in there, Hana. Please don’t. Promise me, OK?”
Hana hadn’t expected such desperate emotion. Tears surprised her cheeks.
“I… I won’t go-go back.”
That night there’d been a heated yet hushed discussion between her parents.
“We can’t tell her about it. She’s too young.”
“But then how do we keep her away from it? We need to tell her something. You know what people have done in there. What they go there to do.”
“I know. I don’t like it any more than you do.”
“Maybe we should move away. She’s unhappy here, we’re unhappy here. And we’ve been unlucky since we moved here.”
“Please don’t tell me you believe all that spirit crap.”
“No, of course not. But this just isn’t a happy place for us.”
“We can’t move right now, you know that. Maybe if I get a promotion next year.”
Then there was lots of talk about money that Hana didn’t understand, so she tiptoed back to the warm embrace of her bed, more intrigued than ever by the forbidden forest.
Now, on this frost-wrapped morning, she stood in front of the fence once more, held back by guilt and pulled by adventure.
Adventure won and she hopped over with the kind help of a garden chair, landing softly in a half-puddle dying of thirst. She couldn’t see Kenashi in this confusion of trees, but Hana knew she was there, quietly but steadfastly watching over her.
It was 6:13 AM, which meant she had at least 45 minutes before her mum got up to make daikon soup and rice.
A squirrel skittered across her path, pausing to check her out before grappling its way up a tree. She wondered what he’d had for breakfast. They couldn’t just eat nuts all the time.
Picturing Mr Squirrel sitting in his treetop nest with a bowl of miso soup, and possibly an egg, while he read the paper, she crunched her way through the forest.
Here was some kind of burrow, maybe for rabbits or weasels, a portal to a world she’d never see.
Her grandma had told her that some people believed weasels were used for magic or that monks transformed themselves into weasels. Hana couldn’t understand why any monk would want to live underneath the ground in a hole. Why didn’t they transform themselves into eagles or dolphins instead? Even being a big red snow monkey, relaxing in a hot spring, would be better.
She spotted a fallen tree trunk, flashes of bark peeking out from beneath a blanket of green moss. She teetered along it, thinking how much fun the forest was and made her mind up to visit more often.
Taking a seat on the cleanest part of the trunk, she noticed how amazingly quiet it was. She’d never experienced such complete stillness, even in their isolated home outside of the village. It felt like she was in a bubble of silence, with all the noise sucked out.
An abrasive crow's call pierced the bubble, making her jump. Its friend replied from deeper in the forest. Hana followed the sound, but then it stopped. Maybe she’d made it nervous. Or maybe it didn't like an audience for its songs.
She tried to imitate the caw, letting some cold air into her cheeks to tickle her teeth.
To her delight, the bird cawed back and she followed her ears once more, striding towards the sound as stealthily as possible and looking out for twigs that might announce her presence.
It was just up ahead somewhere, through these pines. Not far…
The ink-black crow was a few metres on, beak working busily and spindly legs resting on the shoulder of a dead woman, who had hung herself from a low tree branch.
Lank, crow-black hair spilled over her head, contrasting sharply with her chalky skin. Two retired arms hung down in a gruesome impression of a monkey. The body swung slightly as the crow propelled itself away.
Oh, she thought, maybe this was why her parents didn’t want her in the forest.