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Sleeping With Ghosts

And then, just as the Year of the Tiger threatened to leave us in peace on a haunted speck of rain forest island at the southern tip of the Japanese archipelago – sun-bright days and balmy nights; good medicine island – one lash of its monsoon-furred tail stranded us at the wrong end of a jungle track. Two apparitions, pale and shivering, a night-clad jungle and vertiginous cliffs haunted by ghosts and fossil cats between us and our camp.

Would be on that track still if a farmer hadn’t materialized out of the rain and gloom, armed with a weed whacker and hot, cup-sized bottles of sake to keep the forest spirits at bay, and a field full of cane that needed cutting.

But that`s another story….”[1]Stalking the Iriomote Gomi Cat,” to be precise.

A week earlier we`d left Naha, a half-dissolved city of steakhouses and army surplus stores on Okinawa`s southwest coast, with a ferry load of out-islanders packing new TVs and rice cookers, with low-season tour groups and honeymooners from Honshu far, far to the north. At Ishigaki my companion – let`s call her Alice – and I loaded backpacks full of lentils and brown rice onto a smaller ferry, not much bigger than a school bus, and made the short hop through tea-green seas to Iriomote, Japan`s rain forest wilderness island, and home to the Iriomote yami nekko, a stub-tailed, fossil feline that lives in Iriomote`s forests and lava-bed beaches.

And promptly fell between the cracks of Japan’s well-marked tourist circuit.

Crab-chasing hermits shared their beaches with us, and refugees from Osaka`s neon canyonlands passed scotch and ghost stories around rubbish fires at the high-water mark.

Alice and I spelunked antediluvian coves and climbed dinosaur ferns. Startled cranes made exclamation points against the green-glowing forest canopy and mossy cliffs. The night tide lapped our sandcastles, and the trees exuded a warm breath that infected our imaginations.

Now one heavy downpour washed away all that good medicine.

We left the rain forest to the ghosts and fossil cats, and retreated to Okinawa for some civilized wound licking as the Year of the Rabbit chased out the Tiger.

But strategic Okinawa is no good medicine island. No beach hermits share their homes with strangers; no whisky flows around the campfire at night. The place bristles with planes and ships and guns, and the sailors, soldiers, and Marines to arm them. Sleek fork-tailed jets and dinosaur helicopters patrol the coasts. Searchlights sweep empty coves. Fences guard secret installations half-buried in the jungle. In the cities, mothers snatch children away from strangers, and teenagers finger bayonets and spent machine gun rounds in surplus shops.

Okinawa may not have wildcats, but it does have ghosts. On the rugged south shore, where the sea pounds onto narrow beaches that run up hard against volcanic cliffs hundreds of meters high, epitaphs to the dead roll out in waves where bombs fell and Japanese and Okinawans committed suicide – or had suicide committed for them at the close of World War II.

Relics lie half-buried in green decay on jungle-dark paths and wrecked beaches. It was easy, in that sea-pounded gloom, that haunted place, to imagine lone soldiers shut up in caves of solitude, carrying on a war that had ended years before.

They watched us leave that sad, troubled place of war memorials and jungle riot, where even the souvenir shopkeepers followed us with mistrust.

With our last yen we escaped the melted city and cliff spirits in a yellow-plate mini-car – an Austin on steroids – and followed the coastal highway north, hunting deserted coves. We squeezed our tent between the sea and pineapple plantations, and drank coffee by the pot with local growers.

More white sand. More tea-green water. More poisonous snakes and giant spiders. Once again we dreamed of fossil cats stalking through the shrubbery.

But the chill rain that caught us off-guard in Iriomote’s forest that day marked a change in the islands. Tea-green seas turned slate. Beach-fronted groves of palm and bamboo trapped the night`s cold air, and released it slowly through the day. At a picture-perfect cove close by the north shore, a drunken fisherman threatened us obscurely from his shack-front stoop.

The sand turned clammy between our toes.

Our last day in the islands we skirted Naha’s mottled concrete in search of a campsite, bouncing from pay beach to tourist resort, until a steep gravel track dropped off the surface world, past a tattered cane field, deep into a sunless grotto sunk in mossy rock overgrown with twisted roots and strangling vines.

In one rough-hewn corner water dribbled down rock, across the magnificent belly of a cherubic Buddha. In another, a crack hinted at sunlight, a rabbit hole that breathed tangy salt air.

Down the rabbit hole, a long, slippery set of steps led to a wide, shallow bay book-ended by sandstone bluffs as smooth and massive as beached whales. Guesthouses, shut for the season, sloped behind a screen of palms. Even the derelict bus being reclaimed by jungle squatted vacant and without mystery at the edge of the beach.

Maybe nearness to the city made us self-conscious again. Or maybe something sinister did lurk in the empty facades of the guesthouses and bus. Or maybe it was simply that the beach was so long and wide and empty, that we were happy to find a hollow large enough for a pair of sleeping bags at the base of the bluff near the steps and rabbit hole.

A bonfire stood sentinel at the water’s edge, and a freshening breeze sent sparks flying down-beach. The jungle and bluffs fell to shadow as moon and sea turned luminescent, and fishing boats threaded back to port. An ebb tide rasped across the sand.

South of our bucolic camp the sea still pounded onto those narrow beaches, and jungle-green faces stalked the undergrowth and deserted souvenir shops at the Peace Memorial. But no ghosts could reach us here, even stretched out on this naked beach, as long as that helicopter, so big and loud and so much a part of the waking world, patrolled the next cove over.

Which is why the two figures that danced by the light of the bonfire were real, though they made more sense with eyes half closed, and their ragged search of the beach, within a few yards of our sleeping bags, ended in a dream-logic of stranded soldiers and forgotten atolls.

`What was that?` Alice mumbled, when the beach was once again ours alone.

Surf rolled and palms tossed. Clouds scudded across the moon. The helicopter swept the next cove over.

I did what any herd animal with an over-active imagination would do, exposed and vulnerable on a naked beach, a tremor of threat in the air and a beautiful, blonde bombshell in the sleeping bag next to me: donned earplugs and a surplus Air France blindfold, and went back to sleep.

So it must have been some instinct, some primal fear, which pulled the blind from my eyes as a four-legged monster pranced on moonlit rock, ragged ears in a half-cocked position that could mean curiosity or aggression. The dog pranced and lunged, then stopped to consider again, while a second dog, all jangled nerves and bright teeth, nipped at its heels.

Slowly, slowly, Alice and I donned boots and, not sure what else to do, crouched in the sand, half naked and asleep, trapped between bluff and sea. And then, caught up in some newer, more promising scent, or maybe just giving in to a short attention span, the two dogs bolted down-beach, leaving us to gather tarp and sleeping bags and layers of fleece in our arms.

“What do we do now?”

“I couldn`t sleep, anyway.”

Our rental made a cramped refuge as we jammed loose gear, sleeping bags, and two beach-damp, sand-caked bodies into the bucket seats and hatchback. But we were warm, and safe from the vines and shadows that uncurled down the grotto walls in the dank night air. Buddha leered mischievously as we made ready, once again, to sleep.

Some time later barks and yelps echoed into our grotto as Kujo returned, with friends, to our abandoned campsite. To sleep, perchance to dream: of dog packs nipping at our tires, tearing through the sides of our cheap rental car….

“Wake up! Someone`s out there!”

Alice`s hiss sent a speedball of fear and adrenaline straight to my distraught brain.

“There were lights. Someone came to the window. I hid, so they wouldn`t see my hair.”

I clutched the cheap plastic door lock, as though someone or something were trying to force its way in.

“Where are they? What are they doing?”

“They`re gone. Who knows when they`ll be back.”

Dawn broke like a blue egg over the sea as we hunkered above a fishing village where, the day before, we surprised a beachside funeral party. Now, headlights from departing mourners and early risers crisscrossed between village and sea as we kept a weary vigil for ghosts and dog packs and fossil cats and forest spirits, two deer stunned in the headlights of the Year of the Rabbit.

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