The Infinite Bard is a mystical inn with a boisterous tavern where adventurers and explorers come to exchange epic tales of daring. It hosts a collection of international authors who present a new, free short story every two weeks. After you read Hungry Forest, Check out the other stories at the virtual tavern!
Hiroto pulled his Hundai in the Saiko Bat Cave car park, parking in a secluded corner to avoid attention. He started to pocket his keys, thought better of it, and instead put them under the driver’s seat, leaving the door unlocked. If someone was enterprising enough to find the keys, they were welcome to the car.
He passed a group of young tourists on his way through the parking lot. Two boys and girl in their late teens. Americans, he thought. One of the boys looked to be of Japanese heritage, but Hiroto could tell when they had been raised elsewhere, especially in America. Still, the boy was the only one of the trio not laughing and making light of this sacred place.
Hiroto walked past the signs at the entrance to the forest trail, signs reminding him that life is a precious gift. Reminding him to think of his parents and loved ones. He would have laughed if the ability hadn’t been burned out of him in the same brief yet endless moment of twisted metal and flame that had stolen his loved ones. His wife, their five-year-old son, and their two-year-old daughter Fumiko.
Despite the traditional Japanese preference for male children, Fumi had been Hiroto’s light, her unrestrained belly laugh a source of daily joy. Her loss had carved his heart out.
And so here he was, walking into the Suicide Forest.
Soon enough the voices and laughter of the teenagers faded away, the silence unbroken only by his soft footballs. The density of the trees and the lava that made up much of the forest floor gave Aokigahara an almost unearthly silence. To Hiroto, it was almost peaceful. He felt his cares start to drop away. This was the right decision.
He didn’t like the thought of some unsuspecting hiker or tourist finding his corpse, so he ventured off the trail into uncharted forest, making his way carefully over knotted clumps of tree roots bulging out of the ground. He did not want to break an ankle. He just wanted to find the right spot to do what he came to do.
It would be peaceful. He had pills and he thought he would find a quiet place, perhaps one of the mini caves created by lava tunnels that ran under Mount Fuji. There he would take those pills and lie down.
As he went further into the sea of trees, low-lying mist curled around the trunks and branches, an unearthly grayish-white, further muffling any sound. So peaceful. So beautiful.
“‘Called the perfect place to die,” Reina read off her iPhone as they walked, “the Aokigahara forest in Japan has the unfortunate distinction of being the world’s third most popular place to die by suicide. Since the 1950s, Japanese businessmen have wandered in, and at least 500 of them haven’t wandered out, at an increasing rate of between 10 and 30 per year.’”
“Where do you get this stuff?” Sho looked at his girlfriend and fellow vlogger in equal parts admiration and irritation. She was never without information as long as she had access to the internet. And she always had her phone.
“This is from Atlas Obscura,” Reina replied, managing to negotiate the uneven ground without looking at it. “But there’s tons of other stuff about it on the ‘net.”
Jared, their producer and de facto camera man, nodded happily. “This place is so dank.”
“What are you, like a ten-year-old?” Sho rolled his eyes.
Reina held her phone up. “Smile, bae!”
Sho didn’t. If anything, his expression darkened as Reina snapped a pic of him. He had to stop himself from grabbing her bright pink phone and throwing it against one of the trees.
“Why so grumpy?” Reina asked, her voice pitched high, like a little girl. His bad for encouraging it in the first place—he used to think it was cute, and she thought he still did. Next time he was gonna go for someone who didn’t sound like they were sucking helium all the damn time.
Reina posed by one of the signs. “Take a picture of me!”
“It’s disrespectful to take pictures here,” he said.
She made a scoffing noise. “Don’t be dumb,” she scoffed. “It’s not like I’m taking pictures of dead bodies.”
You would if you found one, he thought. But he kept it to himself.
Shrugging, she pulled out her selfie-stick even as Jared fumbled with the Go-Pro to catch the moment. “Fine. You’re a crappy photographer anyway.”
There was no real malice in her words, but he found them no less irritating despite it. Maybe he was actually growing up. He was getting bored with stuff he never thought he’d give up, like night clubs, vlogs, and … Reina. The whole internet ‘influencer’ crap.
One more week, he thought. Their flight home to the States left in five days, and then he could come up with all sorts of excuses to avoid getting together. And he knew Jared would be happy to step in to fill the void.
Swallowing his irritation as best he could, Sho kept walking, keeping his gaze on the ground to avoid tripping on one of the many roots that twisted in their path like some Lovecraftian nightmare. The damn things were everywhere, bursting above ground and tangling with each other, creeper vines and other plant life, only to vanish below the earth again, plunging back down like a sea dragon below the ocean.
Pretty poetic, he thought, pleased with his imagery.
“Sho, wait up!”
Reina’s voice sounded distant, further away than was possible. Her words didn’t bounce off the surrounding trees or the slopes of Mount Fuji. They dropped like stones to the forest floor. Probably just the weird acoustics he’d noticed since they’d entered the forest. It was quiet under the tight canopy of trees. No birds, no gentle buzzing of insects.
He left Reina and Jared to snap more selfies near the signs and wandered slowly into the forest itself, making sure to stay on the path and enjoying some much-needed solitude. Even if it would be short-lived.
He jumped—Reina had caught up without him hearing the crunch of her footsteps on the path. She hooked an arm through his, oblivious to his mood. “You’re not supposed to wander off by yourself, dummy,” she chided. “People get lost in here all the time.”
Maybe getting lost for an hour or so wouldn’t be such a bad thing. At least he’d have time to think. Sharing a hotel room with her and Jared was awful—Reina chattered nonstop, not requiring contribution to the conversation because it was more of a monologue. He’d tried tuning her out, but it was like she had some freaky sixth sense when he wasn’t paying attention, and she’d pout and shout. He found himself retreating into the bathroom and locking the door just to get some peace and quiet. Not that it helped—she’d just talked at him through the closed door.
“Are those bones?”
Casting a glance in the direction of Reina’s pointing finger, Sho gave an involuntary shiver. Bones in a tangle of tree roots. Creepy shit. That was for sure.
“Do you think they’re animal bones?” Reina asked, voice even higher pitched than normal.
Jared peered at the bones. “They have to be, right?”
They don’t look like animal bones, Sho thought. “Yeah, probably,” he said.
Reina looked disappointed. “I won’t bother taking a picture then.”
Sho didn’t bother replying.
They continued down the path, Reina practically skipping as they spotted branches with brightly colored ribbons tied around them. “Those are to make sure you don’t get lost when you’re hiking,” she explained without being asked.
The human detritus— ribbons, scraps of fabric and colored tape tied to trees. A Japanese Barbie doll in a red kimono. And bizarrely, an old-fashioned alarm clock sitting next to a pair of dress slacks stacked on top of a man’s neatly folded suit.
“Do you really need an alarm for something like suicide?” Sho observed.
Reina grabbed him by one arm. “Hang on a sec.” She pitched her voice low, not quite a whisper, but quieter than her usual volume. “That’s the same guy who went in ahead of us.” She pointed to a path heading off to their left, where a Japanese man in jeans and a suit jacket vanished into the trees.
“I think you’re right,” Jared replied.
“I bet he’s gonna off himself.” Reina’s eyes shone with excitement. “Let’s follow him.”
“Oh my god, yeah!” Jared was practically creaming his jeans. He and Reina deserved each other.
But Sho despised himself even more for the slightly queasy anticipation he felt at the thought of spying on someone in their final moments. It was wrong… but if the dude didn’t see them, then…
What would it hurt?
“Oh my god, we need to film this!” Reina whispered.
“We so do!” Jared agreed.
Sho stared at his best friend and girlfriend in disbelief. “Seriously? You wanna lose our YouTube channel?”
Reina rolled her eyes. “Oh for realz, Sho. Like, we won’t be stupid enough to put it up on a public setting. It’ll be totally select, not our regular subscribers.”
“Yeah,” Jared chimed in like the lovesick puppy he was. “It’ll be, y’know, for people who’ll pay good money to see real hard-core shit like this.”
“But it’s just fucked up,” Sho argued.
“Which is so the point.” Reina punctuated her words with an exasperated huff.
Jared snorted. “Yeah. Like, give me a fucking break, Sho. This dude… he’s checking out. You think he’ll know or care?”
“C’mon,” Reina urged. “He’s gonna be way out of sight if we don’t hurry.”
Jared and Reina took off after the man without waiting to see if Sho followed. After a brief hesitation, he caught up with them.
An hour later Hirohito found what he was looking for—a hollow under the roots of a half circle of trees. He was grateful his search was at an end. He was tired, thirsty, and hungry. He did not want to feel these things. He did not want to feel anything.
The mist was thicker here, taking on what looked like almost solid shapes in between the branches and pooling at the base of the trees. Hiro did not believe in any afterlife. With his final breath, he would be gone forever—spirit would not stay in the forest, joining the lost souls of other suicides. But the image of his spirit drifting out of his body and evaporating into the mist pleased the poet in his soul.
Taking his jacket off, Hiro folded it and set it down against a gently sloping cradle of roots. Then he pulled out the pills and a bottle of very expensive sake—Black Dragon Daiginjo Junmai —that he’d bought for just this purpose. He shook more than enough Nembutal into his hand to do the job, chasing the pills down his throat with a generous swallow of the sake. It was even better than he’d hoped.
He sat down, leaning against the roots, and drank more sake, taking his time until the bottle was empty. His mind and body slowed, and he thought he should lie down before he tumbled over. As he stretched out on amongst the roots, mist floated past his face and a faint rustling noise in the trees above caught his attention. Something was up there, a large shape drifting in and out of sight.
Hiro had a brief moment of panic, his heart racing so fast he thought it was trying to urge him to live. Then a soft female voice spoke. Soothing. Loving.
“Hush… you have nothing to fear,” it said. “Let me hold you.” The voice of his mother, his wife, all the women in the world, all the mothers…
Strong arms wrapped around him.
The panic dissipated, washed away by a serenity he had not felt in years. He relaxed into the woman’s arms. Surely it had to be more than one woman, though. There were more than two arms holding him. All of the mothers in the world cradled him, soothed him as the same melodious voice told him what he would find in the afterworld. His heart’s desire. His heart…
Something stung his neck, a brief second of sharp pain that immediately faded into numbness. More warmth wrapped around him, as soft as the finest silk.
“You are safe,” the woman whispered in his ear.
It was the last thing he heard.
After an hour of hiking, the man they were shadowing suddenly veered off to the right and out of view. A broken tree limb, a tattered piece of faded blue ribbon tied to one of the branches, marked the top of a narrow path leading down a steep slope. There was no sign of the man, however—he had disappeared into the dense foliage.
“Shit!” Reina hissed. “Where did he go?”
Sho hoped this would be the end of it, but Reina and Jared immediately scrambled down the slope, slipping and sliding in their haste to ensure their prey didn’t escape. Heaving a defeated sigh, Sho followed, choosing his footing with more caution. Last thing he wanted was to sprain an ankle or worse—a night in the Suicide Forest was not on his bucket list. He wasn’t superstitious, but his grandma’s tales of yūrei, Japan’s angry ghosts, seemed a lot more real about now.
They reached the bottom of the slope, which opened up to hollow created by a circle of trees, the roots bulging and twisting like a bunch of tentacles. Reina stopped at the edge of the clearing and pointed—the man lay on his back, nestled in the roots of a tree. His face and body were partially obscured by the low-lying mist. More mist pooled around the trees. It almost seemed to be dripping in lines down the trunks, falling from the branches.
“Is he dead?” Reina stared at the man, her expression avid. Sho wanted to slap her.
“I dunno,” Jared replied.
Both spoke quietly, but their voices fell flat. As if Reina and Jared were made of cardboard, and their surroundings equally two-dimensional.
“Get some vid,” Reina urged. “Even if he’s not dead, this is still totally creepy.”
Jared pulled out the GoPro and started taping. “Dude, his face looks so freaky. Like in The Ring, when someone was gonna die, their face would be all blurry in photos.”
Sho started to reply but stopped short. Stared at what was surely an impossible sight.
The man’s body had started to turn… to rotate, like a chicken on a rotisserie. He didn’t react, perhaps too far gone to notice. Maybe he was already dead.
Maybe we’re hallucinating, Sho thought. Volcanic fumes could be wafting up from below. After all, Mt. Fuji was classified as active even if it hadn’t erupted in centuries.
“Omigod, omigod, omigod,” Reina breathed.
“So many people are gonna wanna watch this,” Jared crowed. “We’re gonna make so much money. We—” He stopped short, mouth hanging open even as he kept filming. “Holy shit.”
A woman now crouched over the man’s spinning body. She wore an old-fashioned kimono, white with a blood red hourglass shape in the middle of the back. Using her hands, she continued to turn him, to wrap him in something as white as the mist. To cocoon him in—
All of a sudden, Sho knew they needed to leave.
“We need to get out of here,” he said, his voice low and urgent. He didn’t want the woman to hear him. Didn’t want her to know he was there.
“Are you crazy?” Reina gave him a disgusted look, not bothering to keep her voice down. “If you don’t want to be a part of this, you won’t get any of the money.”
“You’re not gonna make any fucking money if you’re dead.” Sho’s voice shook with equal parts anger and fear, both emotions leached away by the terrain. “I’m out of here.” Without waiting for an answer, he turned and hurried back up the slope.
Jared took a step or two after Sho, but Reina grabbed his arm. “Let him go,” she said. “We don’t need him.”
“But… but it’s his channel,” Jared protested. “He’s the one with over a million plus subscribers, not us.”
“Fuck it,” Reina said. “We’ll have twice that many in no time at all. I mean, look at this.” She turned back to the hollow.
Both the woman and the man’s body were gone.
Reina never finished her sentence.
Reaching the top of the incline, Sho hadn’t gone more than a few feet when a high-pitched sound, flat and lifeless, reached his ears. Had that been a scream? A bird cry, maybe. The first one he’d heard since entering the forest.
Still, he hesitated, finally slowly retracing his steps to where they’d followed the man down the slope. There was the broken branch, a blue ribbon trailing from the end. The almost invisible path leading down into the clearing. His feet suddenly leaden, he took a reluctant step, then another. Fog pooled around his sneakered feet as he descended. He heard the high keening sound again, strangely muffled. He reached the clearing, paused on the outskirts.
Sho should have run, but what he saw froze him in place.
At first glance, Reina and Jared were nowhere to be seen. The entire clearing was now obscured with shimmering grayish-white threads floating through the air, draping the trees and bushes like flocking on a fake Christmas tree. Or like webs.
The stuff was thicker between two of the trees, so thick it was almost a solid sheet of the shimmering gray. Two partially cocooned forms hung suspended a few feet off the ground, thrashing and twisting as their occupants tried vainly to gain their freedom. The keening noise came from the smaller cocoon. Reina.
A half a dozen large spiders cavorted in the trees and on the webs. Coarse, dull-brown fur covering bulbous torsos and segmented legs. They poked and prodded their captives with the clawed tips of their front legs, chittering sounds coming from dripping mandibles.
It sounded to Sho as if they were chuckling.
That thought broke his paralysis and he turned to run, only to be jerked off his feet by what felt like a lasso around his ankles. He fell hard on one side, turning onto his back as several spiders dropped to the ground around him.
More inhuman chittering laughter.
The largest spider grinned, face morphing into something not quite human.
“Meat…” it hissed.
Up in the trees the Jorōgumo watched her offspring in disappointment, a deep sadness in her heart. Had she not taught them to choose their meals only from those who sought oblivion within the depths of the forest? To show compassion and discretion in order to ease the final moments of those tortured souls? And most importantly, had she not stressed the importance of avoiding discovery? This was how she and her kind had lived in peace and plenty for decades.
Yet some of her children had taken to hunting closer to the forest’s entrance, despite her admonitions. And here they were playing with their food, taunting the humans most cruelly, prolonging their fear and pain. True, these three would have had to die even though they did not enter the forest seeking that fate. They had spied on a sacred moment. But she would have made their deaths quick and painless.
Perhaps it was time for her to seek a new home.