Sea of Trees, by Richard Plender

From Sw Swann on flickr:
From Sw Swann on flickr:

The colour grey unstrapped his rucksack and dropped it, with a clomp, to the scorched and thirsty earth. Encumbered with hours of hunger and heat, a sigh of relief escaped his parched lips at last. He had reached his destination. He did not even need to glance at the mouth of the forest to realise, by the flexuous branches of its Mongolian oaks, he had arrived at Aokigohara, the infamous “sea of trees”. Its fish – the hemlock firs, the Japanese cypresses, the longstalk hollies, the Japanese andromeda and of course, the lost secrets of the dead – pulsated rhythmically in the undulations of the wind. The only caesura in the poetry of nature here, the colour grey thought to himself as he observed the edge of the forest, was a stark and rusty sign: “Your life is a precious gift from your parents, please consult the police before you decide to die!”

The colour looked at his watch. It was half past five on the dot. Thank God, evening would be here soon. He wondered if he was the first person today to enter these dense woods, and whether if indeed others had entered, they had succeeded in their objective. He hoped for their sake that they had. The rusty sign clashed absurdly with the orderly calm of the forest. The idea that the police could be any source of refuge for someone who had lost their will to keep going seemed farcical. Would your local policeman be your first port of call in a time of despair and loss of will? It most certainly wasn’t the colour grey’s in that moment. That would be like asking your football to fix your broken leg.

After thirty minutes repose he picked up his hefty rucksack. Not a sound, a rustle or a tweet could be heard. It was as if even the birds here chose to respect the deathly significance of the place. Maybe there were in fact no birds. There were myths that the yurei (angry ghosts) would patrol the forest from sunset to sunrise, looking for living souls to claim and consume. Whatever the cause of it was, this screeching silence beckoned the colour forward into the stygian heart of Aokigohara.

There are many reasons why individuals seek to end what that rusty sign sanguinely calls “a gift” and there are as many languages to describe them. The Western World has what it calls “mental health”, subdividing into “diagnoses” and a cocktail of medications to treat them. Amongst other cultures and traditions we may find more community centred understandings of mental illness, in particular depression; in certain Indian sub-cultures or belief systems we might find dil girda hai (sinking heart); in Ecuador, pena (sorrow); in Korea, hwa byung (suppressed anger); In Zimbabwe kufungisisa (thinking too much); in certain tribal communities, a curse or demonic possession. Common to most of these concepts is the idea of a winning out of the mind over the body usually as a result of a distressing change in circumstance within the community of the sufferer. The colour grey was no exception.

His family, naturally, comprised all the colours of the rainbow and more. The parish of colours wasn’t necessarily a discordant one and the reasons for the colour grey’s feeling of dejection probably stemmed from his own self-manufactured beliefs about himself. Not being of a spectral wavelength would be an understandable cause for despondency for any colour but over time he had developed a sort of caste system in his mind. There were the spectral colours at the top followed by the violet-red colours, the forbidden colours and finally the achromatic colours (the category he himself cohabited). Even within his own group he felt excluded by black and white, his parents, who were far too involved in their own passionate love life to pay him any attention whatsoever. As a matter of fact, the spectral colours probably treated the colour grey with a greater modicum of respect than his own parents did, allowing him to reign freely and expansively in the world of the human eye. Black and white, on the other hand, were colours never seen by human beings in their pure forms. All this withstanding, being denigrated to the realm of clouds and cement was a siphoning that the colour grey did not at all feel pleased with.

Things hadn’t always been so bad. There was a time when the colour grey remembered being happy, or at least comfortable in his domain of objects. Whenever he cast his mind back nostalgically to the past he seemed to remember a world more bright and radiant in its mesh of shade and chromaticity. Was he becoming curmudgeonly in his old age, or had things really been different? He recalled a more distinctive role in the universe’s (and within it, the earth’s) pigmentation. It was as if over time he had been diluted and stretched, having been given all the objects the other colours couldn’t be bothered to work with. He had had to “pick up the slack” so to speak.

As these thoughts swam through the colour grey’s mind he found himself penetrating deeper into the cold heart of the forest. With each step his fatigue increased two-fold and it would be fair to say he had now reached a complete and utter state of enervation. In ancient Japan sons and daughters of ill parents would commit ubasate – a custom whereby ill relatives would be carried to a mountain and left to die there by nature’s cruel and insouciant hand. As the colour grey was nearing collapse, he wished he had his own children to perform this strange form of euthanasia. It turns out, killing yourself is an incredibly laborious thing to do. Sweating profusely, he was now gulping water down by the gallon and battling with the pain of his blistering feet. At this moment, it seemed extraordinary that such a pure and timeless act could be filled with such incredibly mundane detail. Even down to your very last passing moments, the world has to remind you just how absurdly particular and awkward the act of living really is, whether it’s a burp after a drink or a momentary stumble over your shoelaces. How utterly ridiculous, he thought to himself. If only it could be just slightly more poetic.

The colour grey took some deep breaths and sat down amongst the ferns. It suddenly occurred to him that he didn’t know really where he was travelling to. He was already in the forest, why was there any need to travel any further? He had been walking for the last thirty minutes without any clear object or set destination. It dawned on him that all this time, he had been secretly hoping for some sort of sign or indicator that some certain spot would be the spot, the place to commit one’s final act. But how does one find such a spot? How had the thousands of others chosen over the years? Why was so much thinking involved for such an apparently singular and straightforward thing to do? The poor colour grey wished only that some blast of quixotic lustre could aid him in making these oddly difficult last minute decisions.

Now he had paused for rest he could truly absorb the details of his surroundings in all its complexity. The ubiquitous dryness of the place gave it a desert-like quality and there seemed to be a general paucity of greenery considering he was in fact in a forest. As he surveyed his immediate space he saw a shoe lace entangled in the offshoots of a bush. Intrigued, the colour grey broke his restful position to inspect more closely. He extracted the shoe lace from the undergrowth, which was now withered and frayed. The lace was much heavier than it should have been. Maybe it was tied to one of the twigs. Rather than solve the problem at its root he decided to yank the shoe lace as hard as he could. A small, dusty object flew straight into his chest and dropped onto his knees. Tied to this long forgotten shoelace was a small booklet, undoubtedly a diary of some sort. He decided not to respect the privacy of its contents, hoping that if someone had left it strangely tied up like this, the diary had obviously wanted to be found. For whoever left it here, maybe the idea that someone would one day peruse its contents lessened his or her private burden in some meaningful way.

The colour grey opened the book at a random page, finding that it was indeed a diary.

December 5th
Kazuko swore at me again today. She’s insistent that starting the restaurant was stupid. “Futile” was the word she used. `She was so supportive in the beginning. I guess everyone has their breaking points.

December 10th
Progress! I signed the lease. I told Kazuko the news but she wasn’t as happy as I thought she’d be. She gave me this pensive look, like I was supposed to have died a long time ago and now I’m overstaying my welcome. I thought this project was going to be great for us. That it would bring us closer, nor further away.

December 15th
Misuki popped by earlier. She had some lovely things to say about the business, that I had made the right decision etc. I just wish Kazuko felt the same way. Misuki didn’t stay long, but I felt sad when she left, about what could have been, and all the changes I can’t now undo.

So far all the entries had been spaced at five day intervals. But the next entry was over a month and a half later.

January 30th
Akhiko’s pulled out. Haven’t told K. Misuki’s got married.

February 4th
I’ve declared bankruptcy. I couldn’t hide from K anymore, I had to tell her the whole situation. She walked out yesterday at about 5 PM. Haven’t seen her since. She’s still got all her stuff here.

February 20th
No sign of K. I’ve tried talking to her parents but they’ve asked me not to call them again.

February 25th
Brother won’t lend money.

February 29th
I’m making the preparations. I’m going to Aokigohara.

The colour grey had a strong desire not to read anymore. He almost felt as if his life was no longer his own. He was now in someone else’s truth, someone else’s nightmare…but it was too late not to read on. He had that all so common perverse desire to watch this narrative unfold to its grim conclusion.

March 1st
This will probably be my last entry. I’ve arrived in Aokigohara. It’s quite cold. The strangest thing happened about ten minutes ago. I saw a figure who seemed to be approaching me. He stopped about 20 paces from where I was standing and just stared at me for what felt like five minutes. I couldn’t make out his appearance properly. I asked him his name but he didn’t respond. I repeated the question again and he told me that I wasn’t one of the ones he was looking out for, and that I was free to carry on with my own business. His voice didn’t quite sound of this world, and I wonder if maybe I was hallucinating.

Everything’s so silent here. Occasionally though I can hear this odd humming. It sounds quasi-human but it’s probably just my imagination. Every time I relax into thinking I’m completely alone, it prods me back into a state of alertness.

Well, now I’m just writing things to put off completing what I’ve come here to do. The world won’t miss me, but I don’t think I’ll miss it either. To whoever reads this, I hope you will have a safe journey yourself and that maybe I’ll see you on the other side.

No name. Not even any initials. It perturbed the colour grey that he knew the names of what were probably the three most significant people in this man’s life, but not his own (that is, presuming he was a man). It was like he had temporarily stumbled into his body and had at no point been able to look in the mirror. For the first time in a long time, the colour felt the misty pangs of sadness. He really felt for this man.

You would have thought that reading the diary might have given the colour grey some sort of catharsis, or a sense of solidarity with the loneliness of the writer but as a matter of fact reading the diary gave him a dangerous sort of energy, and an anger at the callous indifference of the universe. It was time at long last to begin with the proceedings. Crouching, he solemnly unzipped his rucksack and retrieved a long, chunky piece of rope of the sort you might see on 18th century ships of the line. He was originally going to use a guitar cable, but he didn’t trust the sturdiness of the rubber. He also extracted a red notebook, with steps he had copied down himself on how to successfully tie a slip knot. Even now, at possibly the final moment, it was back to grim, unwarranted detail. He had practised a bit before he made the journey but he still hadn’t mastered the technique. Stretch, loop, loop again, pull. It took him two goes to get the knot to his satisfaction.

Step two: pick a tree, any tree. Exhausted by the process of having to make so many choices he went with the one closest to him. Unfortunately, the nearest tree was a Japanese hemlock, whose branches would in no way possible be able to withstand his weight. Taking his rucksack with him, he walked to the tree behind it, a Mongolian oak whose windy arms were as thick as sated pythons. This was the tree.

Step three: assemble your platform. The colour grey turned the rucksack on its head from which a collection of hefty textbooks tumbled to the floor. He placed them on top of each other and blinded them three times with black duct tape, then using it to reach the branch he would use to secure the rope and ultimately, himself. As he got closer and closer to committing the final act his excitement augmented. He was moving more and more quickly and there was no trace whatsoever of his previous fatigue. Completing the knot he jumped from his platform of books to the ground and surveyed his work with satisfaction. At last. It would all be worth it. He sighed a long, slow breath of relief.

The colour grey mounted the platform a second time, thinking as he lifted his second foot off the ground, that he had just made the last step he would ever make. The last step of billions and billions and billions. Now it was time for his hands to say their goodbyes. Calmly and methodically he placed his head into the open mouth of certain death. All he had to do now was jump and let it close. He closed his eyes. One… two…th…a sharp rustling ahead distracted the colour grey from his purpose. They sounded like footsteps. He opened his eyes and found himself looking at an indistinct figure approaching him. The figure stopped about five meters away from the sorry sight of this suicidal colour. He could see the figure’s face more clearly, his skin seemed to vibrate, a bit like a bumble bee.

“You don’t want to do that,” said the figure.

“And who are you to make such a statement?”

The figure paused. “Don’t you know what happens when a colour dies?”

The colour grey shook his head. How could he recognise him in his earthly form? Only other colours could recognise him, or even talk to him. Maybe he was hallucinating, just like that man who wrote the diary.

“It leaves the universe forever, in all its shades and forms. Do you know how colourful the world used to be?”

Things were starting to click into place for the colour grey now. So the world had been different once. It wasn’t just the duplicity of memory. The colour grey stared at the strange vibrating figure.

“Who are you?”

“I was a colour once.” The figure looked at him with a tired earnestness, he nevertheless had a compassion in the way he spoke.

“What were you called?”

“I don’t remember,” said the figure, staring up now at the darkening sky. “I’m employed by the colours, the ones that are still left. We can’t have any more colours leave, and I forever regret my own decision. Maybe if more of us had stuck around you wouldn’t be making the choice you were about to make five minutes ago.” The figure paused. The more he spoke the sadder he sounded. “If any more of you leave, the others will too, until there are no colours left – not even black. Do you want your family to lose hope too? Like you have?”

With his head still in the noose, the colour grey looked at the ground forlornly. All this time he had not thought of how his last living act would effect the others. They would have to pick up the slack of what he would leave behind, just like he himself had in the past. He lifted the noose from his head and stepped down from his platform of textbooks. Through the twilight prism of sunset he absorbed the effulgent splashes of tone around him, in all their complexity and subtlety. He saw no reason why he should play a hand in making the world any less beautiful. He stared at the long lost colour. He stared into his grey, desolate eyes.

“Thank you,” said the colour grey. “Thank you.”


Richard Plender, 23, is a recluse in strong denial about his inherently social nature. He resides in London, where he can be found playing with lego, practicing his Russian over Skype and spending time with his next of kin – Peckham Cinema.


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