CONJUNCTIONS: A Web Exclusive
And yet on a northern railway line terminating at a certain coastal fishing village where a yearly festival is held in honor of the sea’s glaciation, unexplained derailments had suddenly increased, leading to pronounced injury and, in at least one case, death. The railway company, JR Hokkaido, whose motto was, at the time, “Bringing You Closer,” responded, under considerable pressure, with all the requisite urgency necessary to a public trust. First they sent mechanics, then engineers, then managers—all without results. Finally, after some debate, it was agreed by those same officials that video cameras should be installed upon nearby telephone poles and the trunks of larger fir trees for the purpose of capturing, if not a cause, at least an explanation.
The cameras recorded for three months, during which time, once the footage was viewed, they captured, it seemed, only this: snow blowing through the gnarled branches, shuddering gently; a curious fox digging in the rocks between the tracks; snow settling on burnished iron rails and melting; the darkening sky of dusk; snow blown dizzy into whiteout; and the striated sky of dawn. But then, finally, at last, after much viewing, there it was: another derailment. And upon close inspection of this particular footage an extraordinary scene was unveiled. The tapes, viewed by only the highest company officials, displayed unequivocally what could only be a murder of crows swooping down to the side of the tracks and then actually working together to drag nearby fallen branches onto rails. Their task complete, the birds then congregated in the nearby trees. For a long time the video showed only this: the black birds nestled in snow-heavy firs, their attention seemingly fixed upon their handiwork, behind them a blur of branches, sky, and perhaps, in the distance, the mountains. But then suddenly, inevitably, a train appeared and, just as quickly as it appeared, hit the branches and, bucking briefly, turned over, skidding off the tracks and sliding until it came to rest some ten to fifteen feet from the site of impact. It was terrible to behold. At least one official, thinking suddenly of words he had said to his daughter—displeased and disparaging words—his daughter who loved trains, who loved to stand on the hill near the tracks wearing costumes—she’d read about it somewhere—and putting on shows for the pleasure of the passengers, returning constantly to the hill, now a lemur, now a “gypsy,” standing and posing there, he couldn’t take it, she was so strange, withdrawn, her gnawed fingers and nervous eyes, standing on the hill—can’t you do something natural for a change, he had said—standing there on the hill imagining she was riding, her head against the glass, to some place in the dark distance that would embrace her. Suddenly recalling his words, the official is said to have gasped a little and stared dumbly at the hard taupe carpet of the JR Hokkaido conference room. Yes, it was terrible to behold, the footage, and the grainy soundless quality of the security cameras made it only more terrible. But it was not the most terrible thing. The gray footage and the crash. No, that was not the most terrible at all. Because the most terrible thing—noticed by the officials only on the second viewing—was this: There in the trees beyond the tracks, the crows, much to the horror of the officials, in full view of the cameras, and only after the train had wrecked, had completed wrecking itself, seemed to caw in an uproarious unity and flap their wings. They seemed, one official later remarked quietly, to be celebrating.
After some debate, the officials finally decided to consult with distinguished ornithologists from several prestigious universities. The consulted ornithologists noted, not without excitement, that crows not only have the intelligence to recognize and interpret patterns, but that they also have what seems to be an endless capacity for game-playing, problem-solving, and self-entertainment. For example, they cited Eckers and Wilch, in which researchers placed a crow upon a metal table in a small white windowless room. There on the table the crow encountered on one end a clear glass soda bottle into which a bit of raw meat had been inserted and on the other small strips of wire of varying lengths. The crow, called in research documents subject B, but by the researchers themselves in conversation and to the crow itself, Terrence, was, after only a few minutes, able to construct a hook with which to procure the meat quickly and efficiently. And they also cited Kuroki, Sugita, and Yui in which crows had been able to effectively win the sleight-of-hand standard, “cup and ball,” roughly fifty-seven percent of the time. Not to mention, the ornithologists went on, Wallace and Kratch; Frederic Grayson; Lentino, Russo, and Schtutt; and certainly Taggart, Lee, and Westover. Certainly them. However, this situation, the ornithologists all agreed, was much different. Something of this orchestration, magnitude, and implication, the ornithologists marveled, had never, at least by the ornithologists themselves, or for that matter any other ornithologists the consulted ornithologists knew of, been witnessed before. It was, the ornithologists enthused, truly magnificent to behold. Further study, they proclaimed, was of course necessary. Perhaps it was possible, the ornithologists ventured, to send a train down the route more slowly so the phenomenon might be observed? Or several trains? Trains without passengers, obviously. There would certainly be funding available to offset the costs to the company. Not insignificant costs. All variables considered. But this was, of course, the officials decided, out of the question. What was needed, the officials said, what they needed, was a solution, a quick one, not more study, not more consideration and, when pressed for one, the ornithologists, after some reluctant discussion (pacing and hand rubbing), ventured that crows though intelligent are easily distracted, and suggested that perhaps a diversion, another kind of game, preferably with objects both shiny and prone to mechanical movement, might be constructed to entertain those marvelous, intelligent birds elsewhere. Another kind of game. So after much consideration it was proposed by the president of the line, Sakoro himself, to build a small-scale replica of track and train deeper in the forest to the east of the line and through simulated corvid distress calls, a method pioneered by a small town in Bihar (Buhpathy, Azeez, Mukherjee; Singh: Stolen Fruit and the Methods of Retribution: Expunging Crow Nuisance Utilizing Ethological Triggers), lead the crows to the newer train and demonstrate its value so that there in the clearing the crows might entertain themselves.
The idea, Sakoro later explained in his defense, after the footage of the crashes had found its way, as these things do, logically, inevitably, to the Internet and then the airwaves, hinged upon the understanding that because of the birds’ intelligence and communication skills there was no way of knowing how many crows had actually learned the game and so simply killing crows indiscriminately would not suffice. Sakoro’s casual use of the term “the game” to describe the crows’ activities, a term that had become, in retrospect, unfortunate habit among railway officials in discussing the derailments, prompted immediate outrage with council members, media pundits, and public agitators—all calling for Sakoro’s prompt resignation. The president—a compact man with a square, soft face and a lacquer of side-parted hair— was adamant, however. And instead of resigning, he decided to make it a point to ride the northern train every week in full view of a television crew in order to demonstrate the safety of his railway and the soundness of his decisions. For a while, “Sakoro’s Rides” became so popular that rather than airing as intended in the form of promotional web videos, they were sold to NHK and turned into a network special. Sakoro, with his combination of dignified rectitude and unbridled enthusiasm, cut an unusual comic figure in his broad attempts to convey the safety and luxury of the train, exclaiming to the camera, “Now that’s comfort!” whether he was taking a seat, drinking tea, or having just finished using the toilet. He evoked, one television theorist later recalled, a classic slapstick figure, the overgrown child let loose in a mechanistic, determined world.
The gambit worked. The public became so enamored with the figure of Sakoro that in hopes of encountering the man himself they began to clamor for tickets on the northern line like never before. Demand became so high that the railway decided to launch a weekly nonstop luxury train, which would make its way slowly to the end of the line and back over the course of a weekend. It was only on these special trains that Sakoro would ride. The luxury rides were an immediate sensation. Tickets for the first three months sold out, and the public watched with envy and delight as Sakoro, in all his genial oddity, interacted with the most fashionable actors, politicians, captains of industry, international delegates, and beaming pop stars of the moment, all attired in smart tuxedos and elegant gowns, smoking and sipping cocktails. What one fashion-and-culture magazine christened “The New Glamor” swept the trendy niches of the nation’s trendy niche-filled cities. Bars and nightclubs held “Ride Nights” in which only those replicating the couture and postures of the luxury rides were allowed entry; while some clubs, formerly devoted to dwindling popular subcultures (New Romanticism, Future Shock, Teddy Boy, Northern Soul, Gothic Lolita, etc.), went so far as to convert themselves fully into “ride bars,” mimicking the decor and ambience of the train rides so closely that certain patrons preferred not even to watch the broadcast but instead merely pretend that they themselves were riding in the trains at that very moment, staring at the flickering projections of winter scenes on the clubs’ brick walls—icy branches trembling, the slate sky over steel-blue seas, several crows, like strange and idle thoughts, flying slowly past—the tendrils of floating nostalgia and melancholy webbing their minds, feelings accommodated and accentuated by a low soundtrack of mechanical muttering and the surprising but welcome sudden proliferations of celebrity impersonators, most notably, of course, Sakoro himself. For a while it seemed they were everywhere, these Sakoros. On television of course—in commercials, game-show panels, singing at sporting events—but also in the fabric of everyday life. Even in bars and restaurants not dedicated to the rides, the Sakoros would appear suddenly, several of them, standing in the middle of the room gesturing and pulling faces only to disappear just as quickly between removal of the soup and arrival of steamed meats, or one discovered sitting quietly at a counter, alone, bringing noodles messily to his unshaven mouth and staring dumbly at the menu from behind his face.
By the time Sakoro himself was captured on video, now a serious and brusque man, discussing with his producer the best direction in which to take the “Sakoro character,” the public had already for the most part moved on to other entertainments, allowing Sakoro to take a leave of absence and then quietly return to a subordinate position in the company ,and the impersonators to find other celebrities they could enact or some other gainful kind of employment. It was one of these Sakoro impersonators, a young man by the name of Masaki O Abe, who bore such a striking resemblance to Sakoro himself that he needed no prosthetics to produce the illusion, only some old-age makeup and hair powder, who rose, after attaining and then losing a position as a financial analyst in what was later understood to be the second economic downturn of the next decade, or the Gradual Collapse, to greater recognition as the leader—in this photograph we see him in profile, robed and serene, near the bank of a rocky, tree-crowded stream in the lush labyrinth of Nikko National Park (on a distant hill also in profile a large, regal crow), his long, wavy hair obscuring partially his baby face, his eyes and wan smile, waiting, waiting, and the sky hazy behind him—of the Burisu No Ashi cult, famous for their visions of pastoral utopia, wardrobe of blue, interest in the miraculous power of certain animals, belief that only structures with rounded edges could bring harmony back to the earth’s dangerously distorted polarity, and, of course, the deadly fire attack on the Conran Office Furniture factory, which Abe now claims was in fact perpetrated by a rival shinsukyo, the Kōfuku Raiburari, in an attempt to undermine the growing popularity of his own group, in whose practices devotees had found a persuasive and dramatic release from the anxieties of everyday life. And indeed, it was not unusual for a time to see in the countryside the caravan of blue cars flanked by long-haired, blue-robed attendants, men and women, old and young, singing and praying, moving slowly toward the next “aperture of discord” and there through certain physical activities redress the terrible imbalance. Nor was it in fact uncommon to see other groups, in the cities and in the country, lying on wooden boards or up on one knee, a decorative sword outstretched, or facing each other in public parks and watching warily, or in groups of only three, attired solely in black silk trousers, squatting and staring with contemplation at selected discrete objects. “In uncertain times,” Abe—hair now shorn, close cropped, face thinner, drawn, eyes searching and watery—wrote of his time in the Burisu No Ashi and of the age of the cults in general, “the best resource is often method, or at least, the most common.”
Still it was years later, after all but the most affected had forgotten about the derailments and what followed, that Sakoro abruptly resigned his post and disappeared, taking nothing from the house he still shared with his wife and daughter but an overnight bag carefully packed. For a long time there was only this: The rooms of the house, though exactly as they had always been, still somehow emptied of sense, the splintering of memory and desire, and Sakoro’s wife and daughter, unable to live in this way, dusting fastidiously the relics of their life, retreated from one room after another, leaving the rooms to stillness and calcification, until they simply put mattresses upon the kitchen floor and camped there. But then after many months letters began to arrive. Letters from Sakoro. To his wife’s disbelief, they were addressed solely to his daughter. These letters did not explain his actions. They did not apologize. Instead, they spoke only of the crows. Despite what he knew of them, Sakoro wrote, he had never seen anything more beautiful than the image of crows nestled in snow-covered pine branches. He wrote that they seemed like temporary openings to another deeper something, that which was beyond the endless white. He wrote of returning to the site of “the game,” a clearing in the woods that bordered the actual train line to the east as the sea did to the west. He told her that he walked the ovular track “like a soldier” for three straight days “as if enchanted” waiting for crows to appear, the snow blowing through the branches and settling on the defunct train, the rusted tracks, but waiting in vain. Indeed, he told her, upon reflection he felt perhaps he had lived his whole life waiting for these crows, waiting for them to do what they did, waiting for his own response, and that everything before and after seemed like a dream or someone else’s memory. He would find them again, he wrote, them or something like them, other crows or wolves that work together in a hunt or the trembling of winter berries hung over a frozen stream—he would find them and he would know them; he would know them and return.
His last letter came after another long silence. It was short. The handwriting was shaky and cramped. What can be said now, he wrote, that the song is no longer a song? And then for the remainder of the letter he went on to describe a certain coastal fishing town where, in February, if you stay for a week or two, you can watch the entire ocean slowly solidify into ice, which the locals celebrate as a bridge for the recently deceased to the spirit realm, and they claim, the locals do, that if you stand there and wait, in the cold winter light, if you are patient enough and still—the light distant, opaque—you just might see where they are headed.
Gregory Howard’s work has appeared in The Collagist, Harp & Altar, Birkensnake, and Tarpaulin Sky, among other journals. He teaches at the University of Maine.