How do you apologise to a mountain? I purse my lips; let slip a conservative Mmm… and now it’s too late, I follow it through: Mm goi… It’s not the right language, but it tumbles out so I have to take it and present it. Sumimasen! I add immediately, correctly this time, bowing my head. Is it enough?I crumple to the ground and touch my forehead to the mud, which is so dewy soft that my head sinks into it a little. I think of the elders I used to see doubled over in Buddhist temples, and extend my arms, put my palms out face down, then flip them over towards the sky, and back down again –– three times.Some kind of prayer.But it might not work, because I’m not kneeling. My legs are stuck out behind me, tangled up in twigs and pebbles. I remember being 10, when my parents forced me to take swimming classes during the summer. The instructors would throw their plastic slippers at our bodies in the water if we weren’t doing the frog legs correctly. Every afternoon our homework was to lie flat on our beds and kick our legs out, bring them back together, fold them, kick 100 times; I did this sincerely, because the instructors said they would be able to tell if we hadn’t; that vigorous kick out really felt like it was propelling me away from the choked, trapped heat of the city. Even as I thrashed immobile. In the mud at the foot of Mt Fuji, I have the urge to kick my legs that way again, but something inside me fails, and they just tremble a little, my knees and toes digging little ruts into the damp soil. I don’t know what to do.I am still kowtowing. If I stop, I will need to replace it with something. I feel like that first fish to have flopped out of the sea, starved and gasping for air but somehow surviving, somehow still okay; I imagine its beady eye unblinking as the top half of its body vibrates on the beach, the bottom half, its tail, still in the water with the infants of little legs splashing about, even as they know it won’t be the same again. The mud smells rich and deep, and I lean my face closer to it, so that I can feel it pressing against… what do you call it? Your second skin, the air bubble that encloses you tightly. When the wind blows, it blows part of the bubble away from you for a bit, and that’s how you learn to feel cold.Unlike wind-cold, fog-cold settles into your bubble, its ribbon fingers curling in to reach you at your most vulnerable, the baby skin that only the wind has kissed, only the water has embraced. Summer fog, mountain fog, is something inbetween wind and water; it drips, makes sweat-stroked strands of your hair, the little frayed ones by your ears, lift upward, pulled by some invisible intention –– that’s humidity, and it’s lovely. It means there’s no longer anything separating your body from the mountain, so that when you are keeled over in the middle of the trail trying to make up a way to talk to the mountain, it can not only hear you. It can speak back.
I didn’t mean any disrespect. All I did was stand on the shore of the lake across from the mountain, stare off into the whiteness of the fog, and feel ready to die. There was no picture-perfect view for me to indulge in before my death, but that might’ve been better, I decided.More peaceful.But I knew I’d done wrong when the ice cream I’d bought plopped to the ground of its own volition, committing its own suicide; I watched the purple blob be swallowed by increasingly opaque mist;I couldn’t see my own feet anymore. The mountain wasn’t happy. It had taken something from me to show me this. It was puzzling, and I thought about it for some time, still holding the empty cone.When I looked up, the other tourists from my bus had disappeared, and the engine was revving. Wait for me! I screeched, picking up my skirt, running. From behind the plastic windows, families gawked at this elderly woman hollering after them –– or maybe not: there was this sense that they were looking past me, as though I was part of the palescape.Nobody asked the tour guide to stop, so I ran behind the bus for an hour, all the way to its destination at the start of the trail, where there was another souvenir shop. The families wandered into the fog, while I ducked into the air-conditioned building. I picked up a carved walking stick that had bells attached to it and shook it, the ring loud and clear. I put it back.I opened a map of the trails, traced the colourful lines with a nail. Hooked the cliffs high enough to jump from. I’d hoped it was my time. To be light as a feather, so that my body would dissolve into dew before it hit the ground, I had spent the past ten years lightening, letting go, finding closure. But the mountain was angry. I had offended, somehow; this wouldn’t do, not at all. I composed myself, walked towards the trail, to beg forgiveness. Like all of us, I did things without knowing how. We weren’t put onto this world to understand; only to walk, and feel the ground shift beneath our feet.
Shh…The leaves are rustling, can you hear them? The tangled roots are rising from the deep layers they inhabit, coming up with hands cupped to cradle me. Something, something brings a blanket over me, the thick, fuzzy kind my grandparents kept on their brick kangs.I open my eyes to see that the fog is digesting the world, even the dried mud that cakes and stiffens my hands feels blurred and far-off. The mountain is whispering in my ear, it doesn’t forgive me, not because it doesn’t want to, but because it can’t; it can’t move, it doesn’t change gradually, it lives because one moment long ago the earth erupted and built itself a monument. The mountain tells me, I am an infant only, death is a faraway country. It says, I could live longer if I wanted.I don’t respond, I am already kicking my legs, I am swimming towards it –– the rustling, beyond the pale; the blanket feels heavy around me, it ossifies me, transforms me, I feel my skin melting into rock and soil, I feel my hair fall out of its bun and change into a brook, I feel my teeth wriggle as they turn into tadpoles; I close my eyes.
Jiaqi Kang (亢嘉琪) is a Sino-Swiss editor, writer, and art historian. She is the founding Editor-in-Chief of Sine Theta Magazine, an international, print-based creative arts publication made by and for the Sino diaspora. She can be found online at jiaqikang.carrd.co. Twitter & IG: @jiaqikangjiaqi.