by Akasya Benge
“Tranquility and dignity are eternal” – I read once off of a tag on an herbal tea bag. What was meant as Buddhist infused understanding came off as fortune cookie wisdom. I have seen tranquility broken in an instant, but perhaps it was not true tranquility. I do know that dignity can be broken, in particular by war, famine, disease and death – the four stars of all human apocalypses. Regret is much harder to destroy and reincarnates in various forms in a person’s life. This is a story about regret after death, and it is true. If you don’t believe me, just look for the hundreds of other accounts like it.
He must have traveled from a cab, to a plane, to the trains. A ghost passenger needs no fare, only an unoccupied seat and an unsuspecting driver.
I met this ghost, then a boy during one summer in the north of Japan, in Sendai. It was the city that would be the sacrifice to the sea, chained to the rock and swallowed by the tidal wave. I fell under his spell at 19, and had my heart broken as it could be for this facsimile of love. He left me without any explanation, while I waited for months for replies to binary letters, letting my affection waste away to nothing.
What I did not expect was for his regret to carry him through the depths of the sea, through time and space to find me again.
The day the earthquake happened, everyone I knew was relieved I wasn’t in Japan anymore. I had just left, and I was lucky to be home. I hadn’t been back there since, and alternatively missed Japan and knew that I had made the right decision to run away from it. Some places and people do not fit.
I did not really think about the number of lives lost, or if that boy would be among them. I assumed he had moved on, gotten married, had children. It was what people did, and still do. I certainly did not expect a knock on my apartment door in the dead of night, nearly ten years later.
It was a very slow, yet insistent knock on my London door. As if the person had all the time in the world and would not stop until I came. I was prepared, at this hour and with no expectations of guests, to call the police.
I was a ghastly vision in white, dressed in an antique nightgown I had found buried in a pile of mottled and stained linen in an old, forgotten store. I stood on tip-toes and peered through the peephole.
There was no one.
Cautiously I opened the door and peered around the frame. The knock did not sound hurried, so neither was I. I shut the door again and returned to my graduate studies, consisting of a pile of books, marked-up and underlined academic articles, and mug of tea on a battered kidney-shaped desk. A wood fire burned in the ornate fireplace that marked my tiny refuge as turn-of-the century, an Art Nouveau gem in a rapidly modernizing city. Outside my window, a tree still bare from winter, tapped on the window pane as if it would like to be let in too. Though it was usually my small joy to have my own tree in this city, its stark, black outline was a reminder in this dark and wet spring that we were not yet free from the harshest season’s grasp.
Now you would think I would hear a knock again, answer again, and find no one once more. That this process would be repeatedly throughout the night, and I would lose my sleep to this mild haunting.
Well, I am sorry to disappoint.
A note began to scratch itself in a corner of my papers.
When I met him, during that summer so long ago, I had been studying abroad at a sister school to my university. I went with the full intention to experience romance, on one level or several if possible.
Japan never disappoints; not in fall, with the heavy musky scents of trees and burning incense from the temple; not in winter with full-bodied comfort foods and the lure of the hot springs; not in spring, when a wind of cherry blossoms picks up at your feet and swirls in front and behind you; not even in summer, with the sound of cicada and the endless drench of heat and sweat.
He was the most beautiful boy I had ever seen. He had the eyes of a cat, and a soft curving smile that made me stare. I was bewitched by that mouth.
He walked right up to me and said hello, like he knew what had been in my mind.
The note said, “Hello again.”
Now you would think it would say this in Japanese. What most people don’t know is that many Japanese can write and read English fairly well, and are desperate to practice the skill. It seemed my ghost wanted to continue to practice even in death.
The “Hello again” was not blood red, nor was it done by a floating pen. I blinked and held my eyes shut, thinking I had imagined it. When I opened my eyes, it was gone.
I went to bed, fully aware there was more work to be done, but I was simply too tired to do it.
The next day, there was a whole page of writing that was not mine.
“I am so sorry for the trouble I caused you. Please forgive me. I was not myself then. I am more myself now, and I know I hurt you. I want to see you again.”
I did not know what ghost I had, or what dream was haunting me. I closed my eyes, expecting the page to be gone again when I opened them. This time, it was still there.
I got dressed and made to get ready for the day. I had to move on from these hallucinations, possibly induced by end-of-term papers and tests. I pulled on my boots that I wore like armor to protect me from a city of the clawing, the creeping, the sick and the dying. The city was making me feel like I was dying as well, and I blamed it in part for these new visions. At all times I felt like a trapped animal, a deer in a city of iron and filth, my heart constantly racing, my lungs filling with poisonous fear, longing for a forest to disappear into. I left, locking my door and not looking again at the note, sure it would be gone when I returned. If another appeared I would decide what to do then.
It was still there.
I had stayed out late, studying as much as possible in order to come home to a deep and dreamless sleep. I crumpled up the page and considered burning it. Who had hurt me? I didn’t remember. I showered and went to bed, looking forward to rest after a week of study.
When I awoke, he sat at the edge of my bed.
I felt a pressure in my sleep. My toes were covered in something that felt like a heavy hand. I opened my eyes and saw nothing. When I tried to kick whatever was on the edge of the bed, thinking it a forgotten book or mislaid hairbrush, the covers shifted, but the weight did not.
I pulled away from the edge, forgetting to breathe, very still against the headboard.
Slowly the shape of a hand formed in the middle, as if someone was coming towards me. There was no cold, just pressure, and the question imprinted on my mind now formed on my lips.
“Who are you?”
The hand vanished.
The problem with being an introvert is one does not have many friends to confide in, but a few, capable friends, and capable friends have active, busy lives. This was a crisis, albeit one where I wasn’t actively in trouble.
So I called Ana. She was the most steadfast, sensible and honest person I knew. She would know what was wrong, and she would know what to do.
“I think I have a ghost,” I said.
“Well…” she started to say. “This is new.”
“It certainly is,” I agreed.
“Are you…hurt?” she asked.
“Is something going on at school?”
“No! I’ve been getting these notes out of thin air, and handprint impressions on my covers while I sleep…”
“What do they say?” she said, sounding interested.
“They just say things about ‘forgiving.’ I don’t have anyone to forgive!”
“Okay, okay, I believe you.” I heard Ana sigh on the other end.
“You do?” I said, relief spreading through my aching brain.
“You wouldn’t lie. You aren’t interested in making up things for attention. You aren’t crazy. The only possible conclusion is you have a ghost,” she said.
“Thank you,” I said.
“Do you know who it is?” she asked.
“I have no idea,” I said, wishing I did. “What do you think I should do?”
“I…think you should come down and stay with me. That way when it happens again, if we are both there we will definitively know it’s a ghost. Then we will take steps to solve the problem. We will take you to a priest or burn sage while dancing under the full moon, whatever it takes,” she replied.
“I can’t, I have finals,” I said, chewing on my bottom lip. Not that I wouldn’t love to run away and stay with her in her cozy house in Gwynedd with her bunnies and lyrical accents chasing me throughout the house. She would take care of me, and I would feel safe, no matter what strange occurrence happened. I was torn between laughing and crying, amused at her methods, grateful for her sensible love.
She paused. “Okay, well I want you to call again if it gets worse, and if it hasn’t stopped by the time finals are over, you should come down straight away. Straight away, no more excuses. I don’t want you to be alone.”
“Okay,” I agreed meekly.
“Do you feel better?” She knew me well.
“Yes, a little.” It was true, sharing this strange thing had helped me, even if I hadn’t given many details. I figured I could save those for later.
“Alright, I love you. I expect an update soon, good or bad.”
“I love you. Talk to you later.”
I turned off the phone and looked around. I wished I didn’t live alone, with only empty spaces for me to stare into. I stared into the hallway beyond my room, and slowly began to get ready to go to a café. No ghosts would follow me there.
Enveloped in the warmth of a café and soothed by my graduate studies, I felt at peace again in the bustle of a city I normally hated. The café had copper mechanisms gleaming along the front counter, and bricks beautifully and solidly covering the walls. All the tables were smooth wood with steam regularly erupting from the machines and gently rising from coffees.
As I sat there, with my head in my hands, re-reading an article for a paper, I felt something cold at my feet. Annoyed that this far back in the café the spring wind still reached me, I shivered and tried to adjust myself to keep out of its path.
As time went on I noticed the other patrons did not seem bothered by the cold, while I felt the wind rise further and further up my body. I wondered if I was especially sensitive, but there were now waves of cold, lapping against my legs. By the time it was at my stomach, I looked around to see if anyone was saying anything at all. When I heard no complaints, and then finally noticed the door to the café was shut tight, I got up to leave. It was in that moment, I felt swallowed by water. I tried to sit down, feeling my body float and my vision dim in the murkiness that came with being submerged. The sounds in the café were now muffled and bounced from wall to wall. I began to struggle for air, feeling panic close my throat and tighten my lungs. Then I heard a voice, as clear as any heard in an empty, sunlit field.
“Koukai shiteru…” I heard whispered in my ear. I regret in Japanese.
Then the feeling was gone, and I was left with a silent café full of customers staring at my suddenly soaked and shivering body.
At home, ripping off damp pieces of clothing and turning on a hot shower, I was thinking in frantic bursts. I now knew my ghost was from Japan. I was also fairly sure he was male from the voice I had heard, and that narrowed down who it might be. Getting out of the shower and dressed again, I started searching through old social media to find out if any of my ex-boyfriends had died.
After an hour, it seemed each was alive and relatively happy. Some were married with children, doing well in their careers, or on their own creative endeavors. Half-pleased that everyone had moved on in their lives, half-miserable I still had no answers I kept trying to think who it could possibly be.
Then I remembered the tsunami in Sendai, and my heart felt as if it stopped in my chest for a moment.
I slowly typed in the name of the boy who had broken said heart, almost ten years ago now.
No posts after March 11th, 2011, the date of the devastating tsunami. I looked for any indication that he was alive or dead. There were no messages in English or Japanese with a telling “we will always miss you,” which are left like roses on gravestones for the digital age. There were no recent photos to prove he was alive either. I held my breath and typed in a message to the owner of the page.
“How are you?”
I waited for an answer.
I had not really thought of him in a long time. He was now more of a fond memory than a bitter regret. I had been angry at first, but after all this time, alive or dead, I was not really interested in having him back in my life.
It may have been wise to call my best friend again, but I was in no mood. I had turned in half my finals and had only two more days to go. A desire for this to end already threatened to overwhelm me; I was ready to book a train ticket and run away from my problems. I focused, instead, on work.
Two days later, no other strange occurrence had happened. I was still checking my messages almost every hour for a reply but felt with creeping certainty that Sadao was dead and he had been my ghost. I felt that perhaps by finding him I had inadvertedly exorcised him. Maybe he had just wanted me to remember him, even dead.
I was walking home from school, everything turned in, feeling restless from completion and exhausted from my own troubles. I rode the Underground back to my neighborhood and began the long, cold walk home.
Each step felt heavy and hurt, and I knew I needed to sleep soon. I would sleep, book my ticket, pack my bag, and go as soon as possible. I would arrive at Ana’s doorstep and cry until all the water was out of my body, mind and soul. Then I would sleep again and this would be over. I began to hear beeping and looked down. My phone was erupting with messages from an unknown number, over and over again. “I am sorry,” they said.
My body became heavier, and I felt as if the earth was trying to open up and devour me. I heard sloshing noises and looked down. I was immersed in about two feet of water, with no one else on the street to help, and rapidly sinking.
Finally, I saw my apparition. He looked the same as the day he had first come up to me, and he had the same smile, a Cheshire cat’s grin. He took my chin in his frozen hands.
“Yurushite kuru…” he said. Forgive me, it meant.
“I forgive you!” I half shouted, my voice hoarse and strangled. Exhaustion and fear had eaten away at me, for usually I would have screamed without reservation. His hand moved slowly to my neck as I sank further, bending down now the water reached my torso. I struggled to get to the edge and pull myself out.
“Please…stay with me,” he said, and began to squeeze.
“GO AWAY!” I screamed now with the last of my strength, wanting more than anything to pull him in and crush him under my sturdy boots. “GO AWAY GO AWAY GO AWAY—”
Sometimes it is better not to forgive.
He vanished with my desire to force him away. No longer was I trapped in the street, but instead found myself with a normal pavement and only a few steps from home. I ran for the door, and sat down at my desk, and immediately booked a ticket to Wales from my laptop.
When I arrived in Gwyneed, I told Ana all about it. I stayed wrapped up in blankets and drinking tea, surrounded by stone and sense. I never saw my ghost again, after refusing him forgiveness for a broken heart; and a forgetfulness that would have pulled me in the darkest depths of the sea to stay with him for all time.