Encounters on the Aurora Express
Published in Eastlit Journal, January 2017 (link below)
Dodesukaden. Dodesukaden. Dodesukaden.
Koichi thought of the overlooked Kurosawa classic as the train plowed through the barren Swedish wilderness. The sound of trains. The sound of souls who stopped living long ago, existing only for the sake of it. Dodesukaden. Dodesukaden.
Koichi’s soul had stopped living exactly three weeks ago, when Yumiko passed. Too many sleeping pills, a little too fast. And with her, their unborn daughter.
Aurora. Your name was going to be Aurora.
Koichi lit a cigarette and opened the window in his private sleeping compartment. He knew he probably wasn’t allowed to, but little mattered to him at this moment. Outside, the sky was as black as pressed charcoal even though it wasn’t yet afternoon. A fitting darkness for Koichi, who dreaded the light of day and had nowhere else to go. Yumiko’s parents had blamed him after finding out about his affair, and seeing how matters like these easily spread shame in a rural Japanese village, not even his own parents wanted anything to do with him anymore. So he packed his suitcase and traveled to the only place he could think of.
Koichi quickly tossed his cigarette out the window, walked toward the door and opened it.
A stunning Asian-looking woman stood in the aisle, surprising Koichi. Long black hair, smart clothing and stylishly applied make-up, she didn’t look more than 25. Koichi broke the silence.
“Nihonjin desu ka?”
“Sorry, I don’t speak Japanese. I’m Korean.”
“Oh, I see. Excuse me, my English is not good…”
“It’s okay.” She smiled at him. “I’m Boram, by the way.”
“Nice to meet you.”
They looked at each other for a few seconds, not quite knowing what to say.
“Sorry, I must go now,” Boram finally murmured. “See you.” She started walking down the aisle toward the next car and Koichi closed the door, his mind scattered.
What had she wanted? Why did she knock on my door?
He didn’t know quite what, but Koichi had seen something in that woman’s eyes that enthralled him. He also didn’t know that she in him had seen the ghost of her dead boyfriend.
Dodesukaden. Dodesukaden. Dodesukaden.
Boram put her Banana Yoshimoto novel aside and looked out the window, wondering how it was at all possible for a country to be this dark so early in the day. How did those Swedes survive, she wondered. Yet she had always loved dark things, sad things. At least until Jae-hyuk had taken ill. The last year of his disease she couldn’t handle nights, went to bed early and woke to the chirps of morning. She spent the days in public parks reading Rimbaud and Frost, trying to absorb every ray of the sun her skin could handle.
With Jae-hyuk it was different. They had salvaged the nights, made it into a sport to stay awake until the first morning rays. Watch movies, read books (head to toe in a cushy sofa, pausing every ten minutes to read a sentence aloud to each other so that not a moment would be lost to either of them), make passionate love. Money took care of itself, as Jae-hyuk’s online business had taken off and they only had to do minor administrative tasks here and there. They traveled a lot, but never far as Jae-hyuk had a fear of flying. Boram knew how much that troubled him, but she also knew that when they were together it didn’t matter at all where they were. When they were together the Earth didn’t spin, clocks didn’t tick. Their love for each other was above and beyond anything.
Boram opened the window to fetch some air, looking out at the moving silhouettes of barren trees. She thought about joining forces with them for a second, before the sensation of burning tobacco tickled her nostrils. It was the same brand Jae-hyuk smoked. That she instantly realized, and even though his heavy smoking likely contributed to his disease, Boram couldn’t help but get excited. She closed the window and went out into the aisle.
She walked for about a minute until a force of some kind stopped her outside compartment 26. She stared at it for a second and knocked.
The train stopped at Abisko station, over a hundred miles north of the Arctic circle, 17 hours after departing Stockholm. It was still dark. And freezing as hell, Koichi thought as he stepped out and looked around the platform. No sign of the woman who had mysteriously knocked on his compartment door. He had searched for her all over the train, having dinner in the dining car three times in the process, but she was nowhere to be found.
Despite the blistering cold, Koichi dilly-dallied on the platform in the hope of seeing the woman get off, but no such luck. Could she be going further north? Unlikely, as Koichi had read that Asian tourists flock to Abisko for its unparalleled aurora viewing opportunities, and since that woman was on the train she’d most certainly get off here. Perhaps she was the first one to disembark, Koichi thought and started walking toward the tourist information desk to find a hotel for the night.
He didn’t realize Boram was following him.
The snowfall picked up in intensity as Boram watched Koichi walk toward the ski lift for the Aurora Sky Station, an observatory on top of the tallest mountain in Abisko. It was freezing cold, and after checking into a room in the same hotel as Koichi she had changed into three-layered clothing and a thick parka. Her scarf was black, Jae-hyuk’s favorite color, and a gift to him from her only months before their lives were to forever change.
After Jae-hyuk lost his battle with cancer, Boram wasn’t able to look through his things for six months. When she finally gathered strength to do so, the first thing she found was the scarf. They were planning a ski trip in Korea just a week after the diagnosis came, and Jae-hyuk had gathered his winter gear in a sports bag.
It took Boram a year until she could look at Jae-hyuk’s computer, but then it struck her that she didn’t know his password. They had shared every secret, knew every little detail possible about each other’s lives, but she didn’t know his password. She had never asked, because there had never been a need to.
She tried various possibilities. Her name, their cat’s name, the date they met. Nothing worked. She even typed the name of Jae-hyuk’s ex-girlfriend, but luckily that didn’t do it either. She finally took the computer to a technician and had her decipher it. Jae-hyuk’s password was aurora.
And Boram took it upon herself to fulfill Jae-hyuk’s last wish.
Koichi looked up toward the mountain, now covered in white clouds and falling snow crystals. The forecast said clear skies, and he had already booked his nonrefundable return ticket for the next day. If he were to see Aurora, it had to be now. The clouds seemed low, so perhaps there was a chance of visibility on the mountaintop…
The weather being what it was, the queue for the lift was almost empty. Koichi saw an old Italian couple sit down in one of the chairs, watching it take off up the mountain. Three empty sets of chairs followed before Koichi decided to step up and sit down in the fourth.
And just as he did so Boram slid in from behind, startling him. She stood right next to him as the chairlift approached from behind and hit Koichi hard in the buttocks. Boram, who had timed her squat better, laughed at him. She pulled the safety bar down as the metal chair lifted up into the air.
“Where… where did you come from?” Koichi stuttered.
“I was right behind you. Like I always am when you are afraid.”
She reached for Koichi’s hand and squeezed it hard.
“Don’t worry, honey,” she said. “It will be okay.”
Koichi finally realized what it was about this girl that had attracted him so much. When she took his hand, he understood. It sounded quite outrageous, but the sensation that rushed through his body was not one of excitement, but of love. Fatherly love. He was looking straight into the eyes of Aurora. He started shattering.
Boram took her scarf off and put it around Koichi.
“Here. I brought your scarf.”
The chairlift broke through the cloud layer and a maelstrom of green hit their eyes, almost blinding them. The sight was nothing short of magical, like a paintball war between radioactive stars.
The lift reached the top and Jae-hyuk and Aurora got off. They walked toward the Sky Station, where the old Italian couple had joined half a dozen other spectators beneath the emerald sky.
“You’re so beautiful. Yumiko would have been proud. You look just like her,” Koichi smiled.
“I’m so happy that we’re finally here. I’m sorry that I never realized. I should’ve… We should’ve… I know you were scared but…”
Boram pulled Jae-hyuk toward her and gave him a long, steadfast hug. Koichi embraced Aurora back, stroking his fingers through her soft black hair. The moment seemed to last forever, and it almost did.
“Excuse me, but we’re closing now. You have to take the lift back down. It only runs for another ten minutes.”
Koichi woke from his trance and realized he was hugging the Korean girl from the train. He quickly let go and so did she. Her face turned red.
“I’m sorry. I…”
Koichi didn’t know what to say. He looked up toward the black sky, now bereft of aurora borealis. The Sky station platform was empty as well, save for the staff member who was still looking at them.
“You really should hurry or you’ll be stuck up here. Trust me, you don’t want that to happen.”
Koichi and Boram started walking toward the chairlift, neither of them speaking a word. Koichi reached for his pack of cigarettes and lit one. He offered another to Boram.
“No thanks, I don’t smoke.”
They twisted their heads back as the last lift approached from behind. They timed it perfectly, smiling at each other as their buttocks touched down in tandem.
The lift swooped down the mountain, disappearing into the thick clouds.
Copyright: Dan Asenlund, 2015
Published in Eastlit Journal, July 2013 (link below)
The wind had already ripped the first cherry blossoms of the year off their fragile branches as a man silently walked up the hill toward Hanaokayama Park. It was his second time in Kumamoto, but not much had changed in the 15 years that had passed. Love hotels still squirmed the serpentine path, and the man particularly remembered one of them – Green Hill – as his soles accidentally squished a fallen pink petal.
The hotel stood as if unoccupied since that night 15 years ago, when a young tipsy couple had danced into its perimeters. He even remembered the room number – 208 – and the fat black cat guarding outside. Perhaps it was still there, patiently awaiting its master like a countryside version of Hachiko. The man checked his watch and hurried up the hill.
A few minutes later he had reached the park and the somewhat industrial cityscape of Kumamoto met his decrepit eyes. Indeed, not much had changed. Even the cherry trees looked the same, as did the white Buddhist temple crowning the hill. The man picked up a cigarette and a lighter from his pocket but quickly put them back down as he saw the familiar sun-lit hair strands reflected off and as easily recognizable as a cherry blossom.
It seemed as if she had not aged a day, and as she turned around, sensing that someone was near, the man got his assumption confirmed.
”Oh, Robbie. Is that you?”
Robbie did not know what to say, stunned by the beauty of his former lover while ashamed of his own all too obvious aging.
”It’s been a while…,” his somewhat shaky lips finally mustered.
”Yeah. You look different. How have you been?”
Robbie was affirmed by Yumiko’s warm smile, the same smile that always made him relax before (and especially after) his big exams at Kumamoto State College.
”Well, shall we sit down?”
Yumiko rested her arm softly against Robbie’s back and gently pushed him toward a bench at the front of the park – the same one they had sat down on moments before their first kiss. Robbie wondered whether her move was intentional or not.
Yumiko told him about her modeling, which had led to a brief acting stint for a minor talent agency in Osaka. She told him about her sister’s wedding in Europe and how she had fulfilled her dream of climbing the Eiffel tower in a night gown. How good the coffee really was in Vienna (they had once bet on it, Robbie claiming it was just a myth) and how real Belgian chocolate actually made one’s heart jump. She told him about Takuya Kimura and how his armpits had smelled when he hugged her.
Robbie told her about his aspiring directorial career, how his screenplays lay maculated in the offices of all major and minor production companies in Japan. He told her about his attempts of writing stories, and how he was once fired from a local information magazine for showing up late. He told her about his wife Mitsuki, their son Akio and the automobile accident that took his life. He told her about how Mitsuki had run away, filed a divorce and how the police later found her remnants in a river near her parents’ home in Saga. He told her about his drinking problems, and how a doctor had advised him to start studying again to regain some kind of happiness in life.
Yumiko listened, a tear almost discernible in her left eye. Or was it a drip of water fallen from a twig above her, disposed to a heaven just opening up?
”Let’s go,” Yumiko said.
She took his hand and produced an umbrella with the other, folding it up before handing it to Robbie.
”My pleasure,” he said as they walked down the slope escaping the rain. As they passed ”Green Hill,” Yumiko suddenly stopped.
”The rain is picking up. Let’s take cover in here.”
Following her lead, Robbie was dragged through the entrance and led outside room 208. He wondered if it was just a coincidence or if Yumiko still remembered. A fat black cat watched as the couple danced into the room and entangled on the bed under the mirrored roof.
Two hours later, the sun setting behind the eaves of the old glass window, Robbie found himself looking into the mirror. Yumiko, as he knew her, was gone and all he saw staring back at him was his own ailing body and its fifteen years younger shadow.
Copyright: Dan Asenlund, 2008.
Eastlit Journal link: https://www.eastlit.com/eastlit-july-2013/eastlit-july-2013-content/fallen-blossoms/
Published in Eastlit Journal, April 2013 (link below)
I noticed that something was eerie the moment I got off the train. The air within the brick walls of the station felt a bit too brisk, although it was late May and warm outside but not warm enough for the staff to have turned on the air-conditioning inside. The floor also looked remarkably clean, as if just polished or even newly laid. I knew that Gupabal was a relatively recently developed suburb of Seoul, but the mountains surrounding it were not and the station had been there for a long time, catering to the constant flow of mountain climbers.
But what startled me the most was that the platform was empty. I clearly remember the train being packed, yet nobody else got off at Gupabal. Very strange at this time of the evening, when salarymen usually horde out en masse, half dead from their day at the office and perhaps a little tipsy from after-work drinking, with just enough energy to stumble inside their homes and eat the dinner their wives have prepared. But today no one was in sight, not even the platform personnel that sometimes direct traffic with their yellow coats and black batons.
I located my exit and started walking up the stairs, the star-lit sky approaching me with each step, when I finally saw someone. It was the silhouette of a woman, standing at the top of the stairs and looking away from me. She didn’t turn around even as I walked up right behind her, trying to judge her age from the skin on her neck and the firmness of her features. She looked quite athletic but not too skinny, possessing the shapes most women would kill for.
“It’s a beautiful night,” the woman said without looking back at me.
I almost fell backwards, shocked that she – clearly Korean – had addressed me in English. How could she possibly know who I was? Was she holding a mirror and saw me coming up, or had she seen me step out of the train and was waiting for me here? I was at a loss at what to believe, let alone how to reply. I remained speechless.
“Don’t worry, I won’t bite.”
The woman turned around and smiled. The expectations the backside of her body had promised did not disappoint. She was stunningly attractive, her face as beautiful as a pop star’s but without the plastic surgery and TV smile. Her eyes had a natural glow and possessed some kind of cajoling energy. She looked to be around 23, and I had definitely never seen her before. Yet she looked somehow familiar.
“I know who you are, but you might not know who I am. My name is Mijin. I’ve been waiting for you for quite some time now.”
The woman stretched out her hand toward me. Still not knowing what to say, I gave her mine. She pressed it hard and pulled me closer, smiling as she did so. I could feel my heart beat faster, not because of her attractiveness and the sudden nature of the situation, but because something inside of her sent a pulse through my body. I tried to pull away, but my muscles wouldn’t respond. Instead the woman started walking, still holding my hand.
“There is something I want to show you. Just follow me.”
Still not knowing what to say, I walked with Mijin through the deserted sidewalks. I tried to open my mouth several times, but the brisk air outside pushed back any words that were about to slip out of my tongue. The longer we walked, the less inclined I felt to speak. I couldn’t make much of the situation anyway, and decided to go with the flow.
We passed several blocks of apartment buildings, including my own. The lights inside the windows were all turned off, not only at my place but at everyone else’s as well. I found this remarkably strange considering it was only 10 pm, but at this point nothing surprised me anymore. The area felt as if evacuated from a looming typhoon.
Then I saw light. First one, then another, then a whole row – colorful little paper lanterns lining up the path to a small hill. They stood out remarkably distinctive from the rest of the landscape, almost as much as the color of the woman’s eyes when she first turned around. I looked up the hill and saw the lanterns squirm all the way to the top. Even though I had lived here for almost a month, I did not know about this hill and had never seen the lanterns before.
The woman looked at her watch.
“Let’s climb up the hill. The view from the top is amazing. You might be a little surprised by it.”
Puzzled by Mijin’s words, I looked up and around. What could be behind that hill other than more apartment buildings, perhaps still under construction as the area was rapidly expanding. Nevertheless, I decided to follow. Mijin stroked her thumb across my hand and gave it a soft pull. Her skin was remarkably soft, almost creepily so.
We walked up a soggy, narrow path, slowly meandering up the hill. The lanterns were right above us and I was able to get a good look at them. They had Chinese characters written on them and the paper was strikingly old and torn, yet somehow able to emit a powerfully bright light. I had to look down not to get blinded by it.
After a five minute hike we reached the top, and I was shocked to see what lay behind it.
Nothing but more hills, as far as the eye could see, with lanterns in a long path all the way to the horizon. I gasped, losing balance as Mijin pushed me toward her and stroked my back with her fingers. I looked at her face, half smiling, then back at the landscape of endless green hills and rainbow-colored paper lanterns.
“It should start anytime now.”
Mijin looked determined, something alive and vibrant in her eyes. Finally I was able to break free of my muteness.
“What will start? What is this place? What the hell happened to-“
Mijin put her hand over my mouth. My cold lips stung with her touch. I shivered.
Suddenly, the lanterns at the far end of the hills started to go out, one by one in a synchronized manner.
“What’s going on?” I managed to muster as Mijin had removed her hand.
“My journey? My journey where? Could you try to be a little more specific here, because I-”
Suddenly, Mijin disappeared. I looked around but all I could see was blackness behind me and a looming blackness in front of me as the lanterns continued to go out, one by one. Below, something seemed to glisten at the bottom of the hill. I stepped to the edge and looked down, shocked at my discovery. Some kind of lake was there, or river, and I was staring down at myself.
“Don’t do that!”
I looked back and saw Mijin standing behind me, there again but somehow different. Something about her appearance had changed, but just the fact the she was back startled me enough not to try and find out what it was.
“Where did you go? You just-“
“Disappeared, yes. Just like the lights in those lanterns in front of us.”
I looked out over the hills again and now only forty or so lanterns were lit, decreasing by the second. The blown-out lanterns had left a huge, black void, as if nothing had been there in the first place. Below me, I could still feel the presence of the lake or river, whatever it was. Ignoring Mijin’s warning, I looked down at it again.
Giant ripples appeared in the water and from them something emerged, shot up in the air and down onto the hill where I was standing. It was a faceless man, the exact height and body shape as my own.
Mijin stepped in front of me and gave him a giant shove, sending him splashing back into the water.
“I told you not to do that! You must never look into the water!”
I was at a loss at what to say, my lips trembling and muscles going numb. I couldn’t even turn my head toward Mijin, instead seeing the last ten or so lanterns go out in front of me.
“It’s too late anyway,” Mijin said. “I must go now. And so do you.”
I mustered to move my head one last time, but Mijin was gone. And in the corner of my eye the last lantern went black.
Drowned in darkness, I felt the ground disappear below my feet and ice-cold water fill the voids around my lifeless body.
Copyright: Dan Asenlund, 2010.
Eastlit Journal link: https://www.eastlit.com/eastlit-issue-five/eastlit-april-2013-content/black-void/