Friday May 17, 2019 (Mizokuchi Junior High School, Tottori, Japan)
This is from my journal on this day:
The librarian Kousugi-sensei came into my empty classroom while I was reading and told me he heard sirens and the train screeching. . . I went outside and there were people standing outside by the single track, and the Yakumo Express was stuck in the middle of Mizokuchi. Someone is dead. I saw my student Daiki go out of the gym and ride his bike to the track where all the onlookers were standing. He came back a couple of minutes later saying “Yabai Yabai Yabai” (“Oh God, Oh God, Oh God”) extremely shaken. Outside the school, the entire town has stopped. I looked down at the stopped train and arms-folded onlookers from the hill; I didn’t want to go out of shyness and I didn’t want to become a part of the scene, though my curiosity naturally draws me to go. I don’t know. I hear the sirens looming over the air in my silent town.
I’m scared to think of that death.
I’m scared to know that name.
I’m scared of the sirens.
The train bells keep ringing.
The person died outside my apartment. Right now, I’m looking at the body from my window. There are workers and police, and some of them are searching for pieces of the body in the grass, shoes, anything, going up and down the single lane track up to sixty feet away. They take the pieces of the person, put them in plastic bags, and pile them up on a white stretcher. The wind blows up the blue tarps that cover the body and the pieces of it.
I saw the body a few minutes ago. One officer took the blue tarp off and I saw it. It didn’t look like a human being, it was mangled, it was destroyed, it looked like a dog or a horse, half-burnt and melted down. I can’t tell what’s a leg and what was the person’s face. I can see them now putting intestines in a plastic bag, the blood shining, then more and more, clumps and clumps.
Now I just saw them put the body in a gray body bag. The blood gleamed through the underside and they had to tip the spilling pieces in. There’s blood, some bright, some dark, on their gloves.
It’s still there covered up on the tracks.
Now they’ve taken it away. They’re still searching for pieces, but it’s gone.
I just walked up to the tracks now that everyone’s gone. I can smell something wet and rotting. I didn’t go all the way up to it. The crows are now all gathering around in the sky and looking down from the electric poles.
Saturday, May 25, 2019
That’s what I wrote to myself in my journal a week ago when I saw the body. After I walked away from the tracks, disgusted by the smell and feeling like I’d trespassed on something I shouldn’t have, I sat down next to my apartment’s staircase. My friend Cameron was going to come pick me up in another five minutes. So I sat there, numb but disturbed, and sometimes went to the tracks to look at the corpse’s bright bloodstain, trying to make a decision on what I felt. Fifteen minutes ago, when I had been looking at the body from my second-story window, I had understood something serious about life and death, something gray and powerful that I couldn’t put words to but was incredibly close to understanding — now it’s gone.
Cameron picked me up in his purple Nissan. After getting in, I said a half-assed and distracted hello, then I went right at it and told him about what I saw, because he had told me three months ago about seeing a high school girl’s suicide in the nearby city Matsue; Cameron saw the girl’s friends screaming at her as she jumped head-first off a six story building. . . .
Now I’ve seen it. Then I nodded and listened, but now I know. Someone dies. Someone’s death gets cleaned up. Another train runs over the blood—
I can still smell my memory.
Part of me that whole Friday was different, I watched The Wandering Earth with Cameron and we laughed at how bad it was; we drove around Yonago, we ate stir fry — but a part of me wasn’t really there, a part of me was still processing my first image of real death not cleaned up or anything, uglier and more disgusting than I ever imagined.
Sometimes this week I asked someone in a low voice: “Who was it?”
I never got an answer. People didn’t know or just didn’t say, but there were rumors. Since Mizokuchi is just a small farm town in a valley of rice fields and mountains, there’s no way to hide a secret here forever. Probably.
All week I kept watching my neighbors differently, counting them — Who was it? Who’s sad? Who’s missing?
Now as I type this a week later, I’m sitting twenty feet from where the body exploded, typing in the warm night as the frogs in Mizokuchi’s rice fields roar around me. The ghost of a splattered body still hangs in the back of my mind. That Friday night last week I barely slept. I got up in the middle of the night and couldn’t stop looking out the window into Mizokuchi’s darkness, right down to where the train track was.
What did this death mean?
. . . . . . . . . . .or anything?
It’s been a week since then. I still haven’t learned who chose to end their life on the train tracks next to my apartment.
Truth was on the tip of my tongue while I was looking at the body. Right then, I knew something more powerful than I’d ever realized before. But now the thought’s gone completely and it never came back.
Sunday, May 26, 2019
I have to tell you the story I heard today.
There once was a man in Japan. He lived in the big, but small city and worked in that city too. Unfortunately, he struggled to be happy. Even in the big, but small city, he had big problems. People at his job bullied him. So, one day he decided to get out of the big, but small city and move back to the small, small town where he was born to restart his life. But it didn’t work out like he wanted. The man couldn’t find a job he liked and he could never be happy.
So the man in Japan chose a day, the brightest blue day in May, to go out walking. It was morning and it was incredibly blue, hot, and bright, and everyone could hear the crows squawking away over the rice fields and green mountains. The man found a spot he liked to stand in and it was a good place, a place where kindergarteners were picking strawberries on a field trip, and he stood there, on the brightest blue day in May and talked with the kindergarteners. Right next to the strawberry patch was a long single-lane train track, but not many trains came on it. Right now, there was nothing. So the man waited there, talking with the kindergarteners as their hands got red with strawberries. Suddenly though, far away from the small, small town could be heard a faint ringing, then some flashing red lights in the distance. It was the fast train. Right now, this was it. It was the place and time the man decided. He took a last look at the kindergarteners picking strawberries, and just as the fast train was coming, he threw himself face-first onto the tracks and the train cut him to pieces. The kids watched.
That is the story I heard today and though I saw the ending, I can’t imagine it except as a legend or a fairytale.
But now I know what happened.
Now I know the man’s story.
Today, I talked to my friend Michael about this late over Skype. I showed him what I wrote here and I kept trying to say what it meant to me to see that body, but I just couldn’t clearly get it.
But right now I’ve got it back for a second and I’ve got to write it down before I lose it again.
Standing there at my window glaring at the clumps of body, at the police walking with bloodied white gloves. . .I thought I was looking at a corpse when I was really looking deep into myself. How many times when I’ve gone through stretches of depression, have I seen myself on train tracks or hanging by a rope or just some kind of death to give myself some comfort? But the comfort had been just a game playing as an illusion, and finally it wasn’t a game anymore to me. I was looking at the real ends and means of it, the truth:
There is no escaping death as there is no escaping life.
Death will come. But the sheer amount of life that flows through a body and animates the heart is so completely, ruthlessly precious that there, staring at this man’s body I felt a deeper, darker responsibility to live through everything and treasure it more than ever before.
It’s that brutal, that simple, as we live with the consequences of each other’s free will to live and die. What will those kindergarteners picking strawberries remember? How will it change their lives?
Our free will to live. Our free will to die.
Standing there the Friday when I first saw the body, looking into myself, I was left with the power of helplessness — nothing could be done but live and treasure my life. On this dark Sunday night in this dark town, one week later, all that’s left for me to do with this terrible memory of death is to pray and live, as best, openly, and honestly as I can. Pray and live until the light clicks off.
About the Author
Peter Haleas is currently an MFA candidate in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. For the past four years, he lived in Mizokuchi, Tottori, Japan. Recent examples of his work can be found in Thin Air and The Des Moines Register.