My Beloved City, So Bright

I heard the crows lurking in the branches call out to one another.

A young boy rode his bicycle past me on the park path. As he sped by I saw him look up at the trees with contempt for the restless and noisy birds. 

Each slick, tar-black crow shrieked out on its own, then would sit silent. After a dozen equally shrill responses, it would frantically take flight and join one of the dozens of airborne tribes that zig-zagged and wandered the skies above the park. 

They never seemed to have a destination — just a desire to call out and fly through the night.

My breath was strained and my feet sat heavy in my jogging sneakers. My shins felt tight and hot. Sweat from my forehead and arms chilled in the night air and cooled my skin as my arms pumped in time with my legs.

“Hey, Kawakura, I’m heading home!” came a voice from the back entrance of the park. It was Kamiya, the team captain. “Let’s go!”

I stopped, stood up straight and took a small swig of water from the bottle I left alongside the path.

“That’s okay,” I said as my breathing began to return to normal. “I drove myself here today, so you can head out without me.”

The crows hadn’t shut up yet, and from this distance, I wasn’t sure he could hear me as I yelled back to him.

“Come’on, Kawakura. You don’t have to impress anyone. Everyone else took off like twenty minutes ago. It’s just us.”

“I still have three more laps,” I said back. “I got here later than everyone else.”

Kamiya smiled and shook his head as he walked over to me. 

“Good grief, Kawakura, those stairs are dangerous in the dark. You’re gonna trip and fall backwards and then I’m gonna have to explain to your family that their beloved son died training for an ultimate frisbee match.”

Kamiya took the gym bag off his back, pulled a rice ball from 7-11 out of the front pocket, and put it in my hand.

“You’re a good teammate, Kawakura. Be careful on those damn stairs, alright?” 

With that, Kamiya turned around and walked to his car. 

I yelled a small ‘thank you’ for the rice ball, and he threw me a peace sign in reply.

Ahead of me was the massive staircase that sat in the center of Emperor Meiji Memorial Park. The massive stone stairway was dug into the earth and extended up the entire side of the mountain, flushed on each side with thick forest. 

The steps were a dull grey and cut in a simple shape — a hundred of them ascending the monstrous hill.

The stairs led you directly to the top, where the grounded leveled out into a flat, well-kept gravel area. It was the viewing area for the tomb where Emperor Meiji was buried. Turning right at the tomb took runners down a curving, low-impact path back to the base of the stairs. It was a better training route than just going up and down the steps over and over.

I began ascending the stairs again — half running, half jogging — with Kamiya’s rice ball in my hand. It would make for a good treat to munch on at the top, I thought to myself. 

I had ran the circular route up and down the mountain at least 1000 times in my years at Kyoto University. I took the steps one at a time, focusing on my feet and where I was placing them. Kamiya had spooked me a bit with his worrying.

The crows were louder than ever.

“After this, just two more laps,” I thought. “After this just two more laps.”

The squawking was becoming a cacophony. I felt my arm hairs stand on end. What was wrong with these wretched little birds?

But just as my head poked up above the level of the top-most step, a dull emptiness fell over the entire park. All at once, the birds were in total silence.

I crested the top and, exhausted, I stepped past the single lit lantern hanging on the outside of the park service hut — the only artificial light in the entire park — and walked onto the flat viewing area at the top of the mountain. 

In front of me was the namesake of the park, Emperor Meiji’s tomb. Behind me sprawled a view of the sweeping and fluorescent Kyoto landscape after dark.

After a minute of recuperation, I straightened up. I looked at the riceball clutched in my sweaty hand. In my panic, I had squeezed it to mush in my clenched fist. Remembering Kamiya’s kindness, I felt a twinge of sadness. I unwrapped the mangled pile of rice and began to nibble on it as I walked about.

Meiji’s tomb was massive, though it was kept far away from the public area where I stood. 

A wooden fence ran across the top of the mountain keeping visitors at a distance.

In the center was the grave of Emperor Meiji — a gigantic domed mausoleum of grey and brown. It was too dark and dull to make out with any detail at this time of night.

The ‘path’ from the viewing area to the dome — which was blocked off from public entrance at all times — consisted of a series of flat stones stretching through fields of sand raked into perfect geometric lines. It occurred to me that in all my visits to the park, at every conceivable time of day, I had never seen a single groundskeeper or holy man rake that sand.

One giant torii gate sat nearby, just behind the outermost wooden divider — about ten feet too far for me to reach out and touch. It, too, was decrepit and grey. Its wooden structure had been beaten by centuries of harsh weather.

A single crow was perched on it, but didn’t make a sound.

“Where are all your noisy friends?” I asked the bird. 

There wasn’t another one to be seen — not in the air and not in the trees. The singular crow sat like a guardian statue on top of the gate.

I finished my riceball and crumpled the wrapper up before jamming it in the pocket of my athletic shorts.

“Young man,” said a jilted voice behind me. Startled, I spun around in an instant.

There, at the top of the stairs I had just climbed, was a figure facing out over the horizon. His silloutte was standing straight and proud, his arms folded in front of him, just barely illuminated by the tiny park hut’s lantern. 

I glimpsed the side of his face in the yellow glow — a pale, delicate man. 

Perhaps ten years my senior — a thin but long beard came down inches off his chin, and two wisps of slick black facial hair filled on each side of his upper lip. His eyes were thin and beady.

I hesitated. “…Yes?”

His eyes never broke from the city skyline, as if locking on to each and every tiny blip of light radiating out of Kyoto, through the darkness to where we stood. 

His clothing was bizarre and unique in its shape. The stiff collar of his coat rose up over his neck, and several metal ornaments in flowery patterns and shapes decorated his chest. A clunky chain with circular links the diameter of bottle caps hung around his neck.

“Can I help you?” I asked after he failed to reply.

“Is today a special occasion?” he asked in an accent I had to fight to understand.

“Excuse me?” I asked.

“Is there a festival I’m unaware of?”

“No,” I replied. “It’s, uh, just a normal night.”

I saw confusion flash across his delicate face in the lantern light. He never turned around to look at me, though — nor anywhere but out over Kyoto.

“Why then, are there so many lights filling the city?” he asked.

“I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know what you mean,” I replied.

His bushy eyebrows were furrowed and his eyes darted back and forth across the city.

“These lights,” he whispered in awe. “I — I have never seen my beloved city so bright, so alive. What is all this?”

Then, like a starting gun, the cries of a billion crows erupted from all around us.

They took off — a thousand of them from every direction and from every nook of every tree inside the park. And as their sleek black bodies climbed into the starry night, singing the most hideous and painful song I’d ever heard, they disappeared like droplets into a puddle of ink.

Soon there was nothing but silence. 

I looked back towards Kyoto. The man had left, and I was the only living soul in sight.

But somewhere, far beyond the outermost wooden fence of the tomb, I heard a faint sound moving towards the mausoleum — quiet, quieter, and then gone.

I glanced towards the large dome. Even in the darkness, I could see them.

The prints of shoes were impressed softly across the ancient sand in a long line towards the grave.

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