An entomologist and her assistant venture into the heart of darkness
|The grainy polaroid shimmered on the table, square edges curled from years of being handled and passed around. A yellow tint crept over the picture, a veneer of time coloring the subject matter. It was a terrible shot. Overexposed, out of focus, clearly taken in a hurry.
But to me, it was the most hauntingly beautiful thing I had ever seen.
"Where the hell did you get this?" I gasped, eyes feasting on the old photograph. My assistant tried to act nonchalant, off-handedly mentioning he was always hunting for a breakthrough. I didn't have to look to know there was a smug grin plastered on his face. That handsome weasel had outdone himself today.
It was impossible to look away from the image. I'd heard the whispers, mere fragments of stories passed from the public to researchers. Most often, it was the retelling of a family member who claimed to know the witness. Very few people had actually seen it, leading scientists to dismiss these tales as outlandish rumors, a product of overactive imaginations.
But now there was proof. Delicious, tangible evidence that the elusive prey I sought after was finally within my grasp.
With great reluctance, I tore my gaze away from the aging film and turned towards Mallory. "Do you know what this means?" I asked, breathlessly.
"We're going to be rich?" He beamed, rubbing his hands. You didn't have to be a mind reader to know he was practically counting nonexistent stacks of cash. I sighed and rolled my eyes. "Try again."
Mallory raised a hopeful eyebrow. "We're going to be famous...?" Always a one-track mind with this guy. I resisted the urge to throw a paperweight at him, pasting a patient smile on my face. "Even better."
Seeing he was at a loss, I revealed the nature of my excitement. "It means that we get to name it."
The year was 1967, when a German entomologist staggered out from the lush forest surrounding Mt. Fuji. He collapsed at the foot of the mountain, his haggard face pallid and filthy, sunken eyes rolling, babbling incoherently to any that approached. "Die spinne! Die spinne!"
Dr. Freidrich Weber had entered the woods a week earlier in search of a rare beetle. When he failed to return after several days, the park service immediately ordered a sweep of the vast forest, checking the old lava caves and other areas where the beetle typically lived.
Their best efforts turned up nothing. On the eighth day, when he was about to presumed dead, an emaciated Dr. Weber appeared in a state of agitation. He could say nothing about what happened, only a few words in his native tongue. During the ambulance ride to the nearest hospital, Dr. Weber passed away due to unknown causes.
A worn sketchbook fell from his still hands, spilling open to reveal a drawing. When his colleagues studied the curious illustration, it was determined to be a new and unseen species of spider. There was a Latin phrase scribbled alongside the picture, animam comedentem. If this was intended to be the scientific name, it is unclear since the late doctor was not in a fit state of mind to report his finding.
No bite marks or evidence of venom was detected during the post mortem. For all intents and purposes, Dr. Weber had succumbed to the elements as a result of exposure. But since then, the mystery grew.
Over the decades, five expeditions were launched by various arachnologists to capture a specimen of the reputed animam comedentem. Of those, only two teams returned. All members refused to speak of what occurred and withdrew from the public eye shortly thereafter. Any subsequent interviews have been denied.
Most of the remains from two expeditions were recovered during periodic sweeps of the forest. No trace of the third team has ever been found.
But the allure of Aokigahara forest and the enigmatic spider has not abated. Hikers claimed to see the elusive arachnid, spinning its bizarre webs in the quiet shadows. Arachnologists dismissed these claims and discouraged any attempts to search for the "ashen wraith spider", as the Japanese locals called it.
It wasn't because the spider might be deadly, that they dissuaded these excursions. Aokigahara is notorious for being a dangerous place, especially for those who wander off the designated trails and into the dense woods beyond. And that was where we were going, Mallory and I.
The flight from Newark to Shizuoka dragged on for a small eternity. Mallory slumped in the seat next to me, snoring quietly as the plane rocketed through the darkness. I couldn't rest, my restless mind was practically humming with anticipation. After switching between staring out over the North Pacific and monitoring trip progress on a little LCD screen, I sighed and took out the photograph for the hundredth time.
It was gorgeous, the ashen wraith spider.
I couldn't wait to get my hands on it, to examine and document every inch, from spinnerets to pedipalps. The polaroid captured most of the glossy body, its long slender legs spread out over the peculiar web. This could have been faked, doctored even, but that unique gossamer structure could never be recreated.
Even the famous drawing by Dr. Weber detailed the complexity. He painstakingly drew the mesmerizing perfect spiral that ran from the edges, a thickly woven ribbon with a zig-zag of silk connecting the parallel strands as they circled inward. It was unclear how the invertebrate was able to create such a feat.
That was one puzzle I intended to solve. I smiled to myself, lightly brushing the picture with my fingers. "Soon you will be mine," I whispered.
Once we landed in the city of Shizuoka, Mallory set off to find a bus route while I sat on a bench with our luggage. It was nice having someone handle the grunt work. I grew tired of getting expressions of confusion when I was asked what the purpose of my travel was. "You're here to catch spiders? A pretty girl like you shouldn't be chasing bugs."
Grinding my teeth, I struggled not to curse out these responses.
How could they understand my love of these complex and incredible predators? When most girls were playing with kittens or puppies, I was catching wolf spiders and feeding them ants. They were such lithe, nimble creatures, full of endless curiosity. My mother was horrified by my "morbid interests". My father laughed and bought me a field guide for insects.
I read that book so many times, the broken spine barely held those tattered pages.
Mallory returned, waving a pair of tickets. "It's going to be a few minutes till we can catch the next one. He said it'll take a little under two hours to reach that side of the mountain." There was an odd expression on his face.
Pushing my glasses up, I frowned at my assistant. "Everything okay?"
He sat down next to me and shrugged. "Maybe my Japanese is a little rusty." Sensing there was more, I prodded him to speak his mind.
Running a hand through his brown hair, Mallory groaned. "It's really nothing. He just gave me this strange look when I said where we were going."
I chuckled and elbowed him. "Duh. We are going to Aokigahara. I'm sure he tried to give you the hotline."
He didn't share my amusement. "I didn't tell you how I got that photo, did I?"
My cheerful demeanor instantly dropped, replaced by suspicion. "You can't be serious."
Mallory looked at me with a mixture of guilt and shame. Before he could speak, I stood up and ripped the photograph out of my pocket. "If this is what I think it is, you had better tell me now."
He bit his lip and stared at the ground. "Yeah. It came from a body they pulled from the forest."
I stood aghast, trying to comprehend that the treasure I held was from a proverbial grave robbing. Venomous fury bubbled up inside, threatening to spill out. If I had fangs, they would have sunk into that damned fool before me.
"Why wait this long? You couldn't mention that before?! Oh hey Adrienne, by the way, this really awesome picture I got you came from a fucking corpse?!" I struggled to keep my voice down, vehemently hissing at my underling.
Holding his head, Mallory refused to meet my fiery gaze. "I just wanted to surprise you... You've been in the dumps lately and I felt like this would cheer you up."
"Well, congratulations. You've outdone yourself with this surprise." I snarled, flinging the polaroid at him. "Take your 'breakthrough' back."
He glumly reached towards the yellowing image but a sudden gust of wind swept it away as the bus arrived, brakes screeching. I watched it dance on the breeze, tumbling out of sight. Mallory said nothing as it vanished. Silently, he grabbed our luggage and stuffed it in a compartment under the bus as I clambered on board.
It was an incredibly scenic ride, spoiled only by the unspoken tension between us. The majestic Mt. Fuji loomed in the distance, gradually growing as we approached the northwestern flank. I admired the splendor of Shiraito Falls, took pictures of the rising landscape around the Kenashi mountains, and exclaimed at the cranes flying over lake Motosu.
Mallory was unimpressed by the surroundings. I felt a twinge of regret for being so harsh with him but made no attempt to break the thick silence. After all, I wasn't the one who acquired a dead man's possession.
But my hand still felt for that square of film, longing to hold the priceless artifact one more time.
I made a fist and pushed those thoughts away. What did it matter? Soon, I would have the real thing in my grasp. And once we returned with a live specimen, I could rightfully name it whatever I wished. This lifted my spirits, imagining what I would call my eight-legged friend.
It was some type of orb weaver, that was certain. But what were its physical attributes? Was it shy or aggressive? What mating rituals did it perform? The endless questions bounced around my tired brain until I closed my eyes for a brief moment.
Then Mallory was gently shaking me awake. "We're here. Come on."
Rubbing my eyes, I yawned and stretched like a cat. "How long was I out?" He ignored my question and walked to the front of the empty bus.
The bus driver stopped Mallory, asking him something I didn't understand. He was an older man, sprouting bushy grey eyebrows and hard lines etched across a grim face. But those eyes held an ineffable sadness. They regarded us with a lifetime of experience, recognizing something we didn't understand.
They exchanged a short conversation, after which the driver shook his head at my assistant and waved him away. "Anzen'na kikoku o oinori shimasu!" I just nodded and smiled like a typical tourist.
Once the bus left us in a cloud of exhaust, I turned to my interpreter for an explanation. "What was all that about?"
He said nothing, but I could see him struggling with a response. I shifted uncomfortably, wondering what unpleasantness my assistant was going to reveal. Perhaps he was trying to protect me, in some misguided way.
"If everyone says the same thing, they can't all be wrong... Right?" Mallory let out a shuddering sigh.
I grabbed my rucksack and hefted it over my shoulders. "I guess not. But I like to make my own assumptions." With that, I turned around to face the snowy peak of Mt. Fuji, rising over our destination: the somber Aokigahara forest.
The locals have a nickname for this area - Junkai. It literally translates to "Sea of Trees," which is fitting for such a massive, sprawling entity. For a moment, I wondered how many souls had drowned in those green timbered waves. Approaching the park entrance, we strode past the little wooden office and followed signs toward the hiking trails.
A trio of Buddhist monks stood beside the path, wearing their ceremonial saffron robes. They solemnly chanted in unison as we passed. "...nam myoho renge kyo..." I gave them a backward glance, wondering why they chose to pray in this spot.
Knowing that I would pester him about it, Mallory stopped a park worker to ask about the holy men. The young man shrugged and mumbled something in Japanese. I could only pick up one word, yūrei. After they finished talking, the worker bowed politely and continued to add paint to a new sign.
"What does that say?" I asked, gesturing to the wooden board. Mallory gave me a wry smile and read it out loud. "Your life is something precious that was given to you by your parents."
It wasn't the only notice to say something encouraging. Further up the trail, we came across another one. "Meditate on your parents, siblings, and your children once more. Do not be troubled alone." It was quite useful to have an assistant that spoke several languages. Even if he was a bit too dense and tended to sulk.
The forest was breathtaking, instilling awe at the sheer majesty of it. The first thing I noticed was the deafening silence. Every breath seemed like a roar in that eerie stillness, and each footfall was a thunderous stomp. The lush vegetation and the absence of sound gave the surroundings a unique air of reverence that I never experienced before. It was like setting foot into a church made of mossy trees and volcanic rock.
Mallory informed me that the porous stones beneath my feet absorbed noise, which was why everything was strangely peaceful. I supposed that was why tree roots spread over every surface, the dried magma prevented them from digging deeply.
It was surprisingly dark, the tall trees forming a thick canopy that blocked out the sunlight. They grew so close together, many trunks leaned over the path and formed a living tunnel of bark and leaves. I couldn't contain my wonder at these natural phenomenons. Even Mallory stopped being glum, pointing out pieces of obsidian and spotting several caves among the packed groves. "We should check out the Saiko Bat Cave or the Fugaku Wind Tunnel if we have time." He chirped brightly.
But then we came across a placard with a warning emblazoned on it, turning my assistant back into a melancholy Mr. Hyde.
I'd had enough of it. Stopping in my tracks, I stepped in front of him and sternly spoke my mind. "Are you ever going to tell me what's bothering you, or are you going to be gloomy for the entirety of this trip?" As usual, Mallory was non-confrontational and refused to stare me in the face.
"Look, I know I'm asking a lot of you. There's not many who would follow me on a wild goose chase, especially to a place like this one." I said gently, cocking my head to meet his downward stare.
He unleashed a heavy sigh and nodded. "I'm just a little... nervous. Practically everyone I met has said something similar."
Progress. We were finally having open communication. I smiled and nodded supportively. "Okay, what did they say?"
Emerald leaves tumbled from the sky without so much as a whisper. I could hear my heart beating, thundering in my ears. It felt as if the whole world was holding its breath, waiting for Mallory to speak.
He lifted his shaggy brown mess of hair and looked me dead in the eyes. There was raw fear lurking in those chestnut depths. For the first time on this journey, I felt a cold disquieting wind howl through my firm conviction.
Mallory whispered, so low I could scarcely hear him. But I knew exactly what he was going to say, even before the words fell from his lips. "This place is cursed."
In the Shinto religion, Mt. Fuji is considered a holy site. The volcano, Mallory enlightened me, is thought to be a sacred kami, or spirit of Princess Fuji-hime. Climbing the slopes is akin to a pilgrimage to those who keep the faith. But there is no light without darkness. The forest of Aokigahara grows in the shadow of the holy mountain, an evil place where demons and yūrei lurked in eternal shadow.
Although there is no evidence, legend has it that in the middle ages a practice known as ubasute was performed here. Poor families that could not afford to feed their household would carry their elderly into the woods and leave them to starve as a sort of ritual sacrifice. For years, Aokigahara was associated with death even before it became a popular place for suicide.
"So," I interrupted, "You feel uneasy spending time in the infamous 'Suicide Forest'?" Mallory gave me a sheepish grin and confirmed his qualms.
I cocked an eyebrow. "Well, are you depressed or suffering from thoughts of self-harm?" He thought for a moment and shook his head.
"Then there's nothing to worry about." I placed a hand on his shoulder, giving it a squeeze. "Yeah, it's super quiet and there's a ton of legends surrounding this place but I don't buy into ghost stories. Do you know what's also a suicide hotspot? The Golden Gate Bridge. Guess what? It's just a hunk of metal and concrete. This is just a forest."
Giving Mallory a playful shove, I backed away and winked at him. "Don't let the locals get in your head. We're on an adventure, let's have some fun. Okay?"
"I guess you have a point..." He relented. I pumped my fist in the air. "Score one for Adrienne! Spooky folklore, zero!"
Groaning at my antics, Mallory pushed past me and headed up the trail as I crowed in victory. "Alright, alright, you win. Let's get a move on and find this bug already."
"First of all, it's a goddamn arachnid and you know that. Secondly..." The overgrown forest quietly listened as we bickered on our search for the ashen wraith spider.
The umbral atmosphere was only broken by a few scant rays of sunshine, filtering down from the leafy awning that stretched above. I was thankful for the shade, the temperature was pleasantly cool despite our exertion. Navigating the lumpy lava flows was much harder than it looked. One wrong move and you might sprain an ankle. It also didn't help that moss grew over everything, making each step treacherous.
When we finally reached the crest of that particular hill, another warning sign stood in our way, hanging from a section of rope that blocked off the path. "Guess we should have taken the other trail. This is the forbidden zone." Mallory wheezed, leaning on his knees.
I narrowed my vision, scanning the foliage beyond the sign. There was no clear passage. We would have to wind through red pine and hemlock trees, over boulders, and through the bushes... Maybe Mallory was right, it would be better to find a clearer route.
But something moved, catching my eye. A small white wisp slightly waving in the breeze. Spider silk.
Ducking under the barrier, I raced toward the fragment to examine it closely. Mallory yelped and shouted for me to come back, but I ignored his cries in my urgent need to know the truth. He pleaded that it wasn't safe but I didn't care. There was nothing but this burning powerful question deep within, driving me forward. Upon reaching the smooth maple, I had my answer.
The web was almost completely destroyed. But there was one broad strand left; a silver ribbon with a zig-zag running through the middle.
I screamed, nearly falling backward in euphoria. An actual clue! Not only was it recent, but it meant I was getting warmer. Poor Mallory must have thought that I hurt something because he braved his fear and rushed to my side. I pointed at the alabaster stripe with dramatic flair. "The game is afoot!"
He half-heartedly raised his fists in the air and gave me the lamest cheer I ever heard. Then he looked back at the path we just abandoned. "Yay... Now can we get back to the trail? We'll probably find more webs if we take the right-hand fork."
I scrunched my face at him, incredulous at such a suggestion. "Are you high? We literally have a lead right here. What makes you think back-tracking would get us anywhere?"
Mallory crossed his arms and glared. "Do you know why this is called the forbidden zone?"
"No, but I'm guessing you're about to tell me." I shot back defiantly. If he wanted attitude I was prepared to bring it.
Flinging an exasperated arm at the abundant vegetation, my assistant got snappy with me. "It is LITERALLY the area where people disappear. Have you seen how thick these woods are? You could walk a hundred feet and never find your way back again! And did I mention how the lava is magnetic? Don't even bother using a compass or any kind of navigational equipment because you'll be shit outta luck."
When he paused for breath, I jumped in. "Are you done? Because if your little rant is over I have a proposal."
Reaching into my cargo pants, I withdrew a folding knife and waved it at him. "Can't get lost if you mark the trees. I also have paint and some string line as well. Would you prefer we use one method or all three?"
Mallory didn't have anything to say after that.