Yurei No Kabe

One of my most cherished childhood memories is of a family trip to Yurei No Kabe. My family was living abroad then in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan during the time I was still in middle school. We had little money and rarely traveled anywhere, so it was an unexpected treat.

My parents let me sit in the window seat so I could watch the liftoff. I swung my legs in the seat and stared enraptured as the ground began to blur past. We lifted up over the cityscape and glided into the serene blue ahead of us. I sat back to soak in the feeling and immediately fell asleep from the lullabye motion. We carried a day pack each among us, although my father carried the bulk of my belongings.

Once on land, we rushed to catch a rusted ferry carried us over crystal clear cerulean waters. The three of us: mother, father, and daughter leaned against the cool metal railing, letting the breeze whip through our hair and clothes, as we breathed in the humid salt air. As we approached the coast, we could see snatches of the shimmering fish below. My father pointed out electric blue damselfish, stealthily gliding rays, saltwater tortoises, even a few humpback whales on the horizon.  

We stayed in an inexpensive hotel tucked in a ways from the shore. My mother always poached a few extra onigiri rice balls from the breakfast bar for us to snack on later. That first morning after our arrival, we took a lazy tour of the beach. As soon as we found a spot, my father unrolled a towel and promptly fell asleep under a steepled newspaper. My mother and I in our sun hats and bathing suits walked along the shore looking for crabs and seashells. I noticed they were covered all over with tiny star-shaped grains of sand. My mother told me that these star sand, no bigger than a bread crumb, were the oldest fossils in the world. I held them in my hand, enchanted. It was like looking at tiny snowflakes that wouldn’t melt away. I used a large clamshell to dig some up and gave it to my mom to carry back with us.

On the second day, we set out to visit Yurei No Kabe, the Wall of Ghostly Voices. My mother explained why it was called that.

“When the Buddhist monks broke their vows of silence, they were banished from the monastery. They couldn’t travel anywhere else, so they lived out the rest of their lives in the nearby caves, paying penance with a second vow of silence. After the monks died, their voices were hungry for human connection, so they flew out of the monks’ bodies and crawled into the cracks and fissures inside the walls. That’s where they wait for people like us to come by and ask them questions. But you have to follow the rules. You can never tell anyone what you heard and you have to keep the location a secret. It’s only for very special people to know about.”

“What makes us special?” I asked.

“We can be trusted to protect it,” my father said. In retrospect, my father’s line of reasoning didn’t make a whole lot of sense, but I knew what he meant. We were the kind of people that understood the sacredness of a space.

The journey required a half day’s hike. We trudged past dense patches of mangroves—their roots a jumble of trips and falls, crossed countless creeks slick with mossy stones, and trampled over several switchbacks through the jungly thicket leaving us breathless, muddy, and drenched in sweat by the time we found the obscure trailmark near the top of Maryudu Falls. My mother checked her damp and crumpled instructions, then had us count off the twenty steps that led to a hidden trail. We followed it until we reached a tiny sliver of wall visible through the tangle of vines. It was an unremarkable swatch of grey, but we eagerly pressed our ears against the cool damp stone. I closed my eyes and held my breath. I could hear delicate whisperings that slowly grew louder. It sounded as if they were chanting a message over and over. I concentrated until I could make out what they were saying — which turned out to be something so personal and profound that I knew immediately that this message could only be for me. I opened my eyes to see my parents smiling down on me. My mother placed a finger on her lips.

“The words are your secret to keep,” she said.

“How do I know if I heard it right?” My mother thought about this for a second.

“I think that what you think you heard is what you heard.”

I unknotted her words in my head and nodded my understanding.

It was a place I returned to often in my memories, but it took my mother’s death to send me back there in person. On the bathroom window sill of my mother’s house, I found an old perfume bottle half filled with star sand and a single strip of paper — her message! I resisted opening it for several days. But in my sadness, I was hungry for anything she might have left behind and in the end, I had to know what it said. A pair of tweezers was necessary to pluck the paper from the bottle. Her handwriting was cramped and the ink faded, but there was no mistaking the words. The dust is where she turns. It didn’t make any sense to me, but it must have had significance to my mother.  

My flight to Japan from San Francisco lands without incident. I stay a night on the main island to gather my bearings in a hotel near the shore. I know it’s the same ocean in California, but for some reason, it smells different here. Bigger, all enveloping. A sleeping pill drowns out the jet lag and I’m somehow not in a total fog when the morning comes.

I have a couple hours to kill before the first ferry. I’d forgotten about how pleasant and mellow it was here. None of that big city bustle. I take my time, too, sinking in to the beach town vibes like a comfortable sofa. It’s almost too comfortable though. In my daze, I almost miss the ferry.

Passengers are already boarding by the time I get in line, so instead of a nice ocean view, I get squashed in the middle next to a German tourist who is intent on ignoring his red-faced son. Instead, he slings Japanese phrases at me despite my insistence that I’m American! Even a kurt Ich bin Amerikaner! does nothing to dissuade him of his desire to converse with me in Japanese. The crowd shifts at some point and I’m able to squeeze past until I find myself by the open door of the steering room. The captain, a rail of a man not much younger than my father, offers a friendly if not overly warm hello and I ask him about the wall.  

He tells me that the “voices” come from the millions of worms that live inside the wall. They are the size of millipedes, but flat. The sound comes from their bodies which hang slack like a hammock, while their ends attach themselves to the wall. Changes in their environment sends their papery bodies vibrating madly — similar to blowing on a blade of grass. When enough of them vibrate in unison, the noise they produce sounds uncannily human. I’m in disbelief and smile to hide my disappointment.

He says, “They’re dying now. It’s good you came to see them.” This revelation is even sadder than giving up the ghost story of my childhood. I ask him what’s killing them. He tilts his head to one side in acknowledgment, but he doesn’t offer any answers.

Getting to the wall is unbelievably easy this time. A tour bus drops off a small village of us at the foot of the cliff where stone steps have been set, cordoned off with a rope railing. I take my place at the end of the line. For almost an hour, I ascend the shadeless slope step by step, along with a hundred other wilting tourists. In one hand, I gently roll the perfume bottle in time with my breaths like a prayer bead. I don’t remember there being so many mosquitoes. They’re especially aggressive about sampling the blood bounty before them despite the cloud of bug repellant that people keep seeding. My mother, at least, would have thought to bring a hat.  

When we near the top, I can see the wall stretch forever into the distance. There are many faces leaning against it, contorted into goofy expressions. This is why it’s taking so long, I can see now. It’s the incessant photo snapping.

I finally reach the front and find a free spot, pressing my ear firmly against the surface. It’s warm, the same temperature as my cheek. I close my eyes and listen carefully. For what feels like an eternity, there’s nothing. But then, little by little, their slight shiverings grow louder until they reach a crescendo. Only this time, their message is much quieter and tattered. Nonsense, even. I suppress my disappointment and say goodbye to the wall. When I look down, I notice the ground is covered with countless worm corpses. Stepping on them makes no sound.

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