Realer Than You
Everything you think you know about the world isn't true. Nothing is real, it's all made up. We live in a world of illusion. I'm telling you this up front because I don't want you thinking this story is going to have a happy ending. It won't make any sense out of sadness. It won't redeem humanity in even a small sort of way.
My name is Elijah Fulton, and unlike so many things, this actually happened. It happened in Japan at the beginning of the twenty-first century, when I was sixteen and my parents forced me to leave America. It happened in Ami, a suburb an hour away from Tokyo, on a trail in a bamboo forest.
I was running that day, as usual, because running and biking were the only ways I could get anywhere. You had to be eighteen to drive in Japan, so all of a sudden I was a kid again. Without a car, I was stuck in our tiny house with my thirteen-year-old sister and my mom as they learned how to cook Japanese food with Mrs. Fujita, the wife of my dad's boss. Mrs. Fujita was always calling from the kitchen for me to come taste whatever weird thing they were making in there, like, "Come taste this delicious eel, Elijah!" and I wasn't having any of that. So I ran to get away from everything. From my parents and their friends, from my little sister. From Ami. If I could have, I would have run away from Japan altogether.
When I first started running, I didn't know where the roads led to or even in which direction they traveled, so to be safe I'd circle the apartment complex next to our house, and every day I'd run a little further. By the end of my first week I made it to the end of our road, and a few days after that I crossed over to a road that ran over a hill, into a forest of bamboo and pine trees. The road twisted uninterrupted through the woods for a long time, like a stream flowing through the trees, but I kept going, and eventually I reached a place where the road split off in two directions. One way curved out of the forest, opening onto a cabbage farm and, beyond it, the sloping red- and blue-tiled roofs of town. The other way deteriorated into a dirt trail that wound further into the forest.
I took the trail that went into the woods, where under the gray-green bamboo shadows locusts buzzed and sawed, carrying on a strange conversation. As I ran I listened to the thud of my feet as they fell on the path, and the rise and fall of my breathing. Safe rhythms. They let me know my body was still the same, even though nothing else was familiar.
As I ran, a dragonfly big as my hand flitted back and forth around me, circling me but never leaving. It was bigger than any dragonfly I'd ever seen in America. I could see all of its details, its metallic body and bulbous head, its knobby joints and how its wings sparkled in the shafts of falling sunlight. It's no wonder why people once believed they were fairies. But people will believe in almost anything, really. Sometimes you don't even have to try very hard to convince them.
I was so distracted by looking at anything other than where I was going that I didn't notice the trail I was running on had ended at some point. And when I did notice, I found myself in a cleared circle deep in the woods, where a tiny unpainted house, like the sort people back home put up on poles as bird mansions, stood pressed into the shade at the back of the clearing.
This house had little stairs leading up to a doll-sized door bolted with a rusty lock, and coins and braids of colored string lay scattered across its steps. As I walked closer to examine it, I started to think someone very small would unlock that door at any moment, swing it open, and step out. Maybe it was the dragonfly and all those thoughts of fairies that made me think that. Maybe it was my mood that day in general. Whatever the reason, no one opened that tiny door to ask what I was doing there. Instead, a rustling startled me, and when I looked up, I found a red dog stepping out of the trees behind the house.
It looked more like a fox than a dog maybe. Not like a real fox, though, all skinny and dirty. More like one that just stepped out of a storybook. It had a rich coat of red fur and a bib-shaped patch of white down on its throat. Lifting its nose to sniff the air, cocking its head to one side, it inspected me like I'd inspected the house.
While it circled, I stood still like you're supposed to, careful not to provoke it. I mean, storybook or not, it was some kind of canine and I was obviously on its territory. It must have decided I was okay, because eventually it lowered its head, uninterested, and walked away. I let a breath out, but only a second later I realized my troubles weren't over. The dog was leaving, but it was taking the path I needed to leave by.
I could have waited until the path was free of strange animals, but instead I decided to walk a little ways behind it. It was getting dark, and I couldn't help but wonder what other creatures might come out to meet me if I was still lost in that forest after the moon rose.
As I followed, the dog kept moving, only stopping to look over its shoulder occasionally, its black nose gently nudging the air in front of it. Whenever it did that, a little pang went off inside my chest and suddenly I wanted to pet it, to wrap my arms around its neck and hold it like I used to hold my girlfriend back in the States before we broke up because I was leaving. The fox felt that familiar.
And that's when the really weird thing happened. That's when I got the idea that our meeting wasn't an accident. As we left the shade of the forest, I thought, It's leading me. It's taking me home again, isn't it?
But then it didn't lead me home after all. Well, not all the way, that is. When we reached the path to the intersection where I needed to cross over, it stopped, looked at me once more with its bright green eyes, then dashed back into the woods we'd come out of. I stood there watching it slip through the poles of bamboo for a while, a flash of burnt orange amid the gray-green. And afterward, when all I saw was green again, I ran the rest of the way home.
The name Ami officially has no meaning, but I think it has a secret one. In the Dictionary of Secret Meanings, the word Ami means "the most boring town in the world." With its Catholic-school-uniformed boys and girls walking the sidewalks, with its 1950s-looking housewives wearing aprons as they zoomed down the street on mopeds, it was like living in some surreal Leave It to Beaver rerun. Unfortunately, they have those in Japan, too.
It wasn't just the apron-wearing housewives on mopeds or uniformed Japanese students wandering the streets, though. Those things were all a part of it, but it was more than that. It was the strange symbols on billboards instead of the Roman alphabet, it was the radio announcers spewing streams of incomprehensible chatter, it was the TV shows that made no sense, it was the way my family took everything in such stride. It was all of those things together that made me feel dizzy.
My dad's boss, Mr. Fujita, got my dad used to the place pretty quickly, so I don't think he ever felt the same kind of vertigo I did. And Mrs. Fujita and my mom were dead set on becoming best friends. With Mr. Fujita, my dad bought a car. With Mrs. Fujita, my mom learned which stores had the best groceries, which restaurants the best sushi. So both of my parents had interpreters helping them make everything easy.
Liz and I, on the other hand, had been put in a school for kids of English speakers. Mostly Australian and British kids went there, but it was still cool to be able to speak English, even though there were differences between our English. Like what the hell's a jumper? How about arse and bloke? Words like that always made the few American students snicker and look at each other smiling. Then the Aussies and Brits would laugh at the Americans snickering. It was all a friendly sort of making fun of one another, I guess. I had a Japanese class, but just being there sounding like an idiot as I tried speaking Japanese with a bunch of kids who really spoke English made me feel like I'd stumbled into some kind of government brainwashing program. When I told Liz how I felt after our first few weeks, she said, "Classrooms and government brainwashing programs are the same thing, Elijah. That's how they are everywhere, though. Not just here." I seriously have no clue where she comes up with these things.
My dad works for an electronics company, a big name brand in America that rhymes with phony. And that's the word I want to talk about. Phony. Because that's what I thought about most of the people I met in my first few weeks. They were phonies. Fakes. Or as my English teacher back home would have said, what I was dealing with was a "culture of charlatans." Everyone seemed to always be bowing and apologizing, saying how they should have been the one to thank you for giving them the opportunity to present you with a gift, which to me seemed like the biggest guilt trip ever. I couldn't really believe anything they said, because it all seemed so absurdly polite. I thought they had to be lying.
I wanted the bluntness of America. I wanted someone to lean on a car horn and shout out the window, "What the hell's the holdup?!" I wanted someone to say what they were really thinking. Stuff that helps you know where you stand with a person. But the Japanese are all about subtlety. If they're mad, they'll just keep smiling, saying "please" and "thank you." If you want to know what they really think, you can forget about it unless they're thinking something nice.
When I got back from my run that day, my sister, Liz, was watching one of those weird Japanese TV shows. The host kept saying, "Hontooo?" and the audience laughed whenever he said it, like he was the funniest guy ever. Liz laughed with them, as if she understood. Actually, she did understand. It was me who didn't get it. Liz was only thirteen, but she'd spent the last three months before we moved studying Japanese, learning two of its three alphabets. When Mr. Fujita had come to pick us up at the airport, she'd been able to introduce herself in Japanese. I like my sister a lot, but sometimes I feel like she's the one who should be getting ready to graduate and go to college, not me.
When she realized I was in the room, she looked up, still giggling, and said, "Konnichiwa, Elijah. Genki desu ka?"
"Okay," I said, sighing. "I guess." Usually I refused to respond if she spoke Japanese, but I didn't have the energy that day to deal with it.
Liz looked at me suspiciously, and her laughter faded. "Are you okay?" she said again. "I mean, really?"
"Yeah," I said. "It's nothing."
I went back to my room and fell on my futon, thinking hard. The air was thick with moisture, and my small fan didn't do much but stir it around. There was air conditioning, but after our first week here we'd stopped using it. Some Japanese friends from Phony International had come over and freaked out when they saw it running. "This air is expensive!" they'd gasped, and of course my mom had hopped to, like she does when any Japanese person suggests anything. "When in Rome," she was always saying. But we're not in Rome. We're in Ami.
I breathed in that wet air now and thought about what had happened. Something big, but I didn't know how to explain it. I already knew I wanted to go back to the clearing, though. To that little house. To see that red dog or fox again. To feel the calm it gave me. It was the first time I'd felt that in months, and after having it for just those few moments, I was already desperate to feel it again.
I was still lying on my futon an hour later, face down in the rice-filled pillows my mom had bought us on Mrs. Fujita's recommendation, when I decided to go ahead and talk to Liz about what I'd seen in the forest earlier. I hadn't really paid my little sister much attention before we left America, but here she seemed like the only person I could talk to.
She was still stretched out on the couch in the living room where I'd left her, but now she was watching the international news hour. American soldiers in beige camo were standing with their guns pointed at some Iraqi people spread out on the ground around them, shouting at them to not move. If it wasn't the funny Japanese talk shows, Liz was watching stuff like this, which was thoroughly depressing, and even Mom and Dad would sometimes tell her to turn the channel to something less grim. Liz always obliged, but not without some snotty comment. "Yes, why on earth would we want to watch real reality TV?" she'd say snobbily. Sometimes she was like this really old British woman trapped inside the body of a thirteen-year-old American girl.
Anyway, when I sat down on the couch by her feet and said, "Hey, I saw something strange today," Liz muted the TV with a flick of the remote.
"Go ahead," she said, sitting up and turning to me like an encouraging psychologist, her eyes wide and alert, prepared to understand me. By the time I finished telling her everything, she was nodding in this knowing way, curling her long brown hair in a loop around one finger. "You saw a shrine, Elijah," she told me. "They put them in different places. Probably the one you saw was private. Like a family put it there, or maybe even just one person."
"It looked old," I said. "You know, in disrepair."
"Probably it's abandoned," said Liz. "Maybe the person who made it died."
I thought about that for a second, then asked, "So what's it for?"
"For gods to live in," said Liz. This was totally one of her things, apparently. I got up and went to the kitchen for a glass of the iced barley water my mom said Mrs. Fujita swore by as the perfect late summer drink, and Liz followed, eating up my interest. "That's why there were things on the steps. They were offerings."
"Really?" I said. "That's sort of cool."
"Yeah," said Liz, "and what you saw is a small one. We should find out where the big nearby shrines are and go. Those are huge and lots of people visit them."