Tuesday, October 21, 2008

A Brief History of ( My Time in) Japan

Hello, friends. I'd like to take the time to give you a little history about myself. This is primarily for the benefit of new found friends and colleagues that I've encountered and continue to encounter through my involvement in the JET Alumni Association (JETAA). The Japanese Exchange and Teaching (JET) Program provided me with the opportunity to teach English in Japan for two years after I graduated from college.

I recently took on the mantle of Representative for the Dakotas Sub-Chapter of JETAA USA. One of my responsibilities with this position is maintaining communication and participation, as much as I'm able, for North and South Dakota. And that brings me to the brief history of my life after college when I lived in Japan. I'll sum up with a brief paragraph on where I'm at today. Yes, I realize that one paragraph is a very small amount of space to summarize where a person is in life, but it will serve our purpose today.

First allow me a chance to introduce myself. I graduated from Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell, South Dakota with an English / Creative Writing degree in 1998.
That same year I entered the JET Program and began working at Ohito-koko in Ohito-cho, Shizuoka-ken. I spent two years teaching various classes, including Oral Communications A and B to a total of 600 students covering the three grade levels at Ohito-koko.

hito-cho was located on the Izu Peninsula in Shizuoka-ken. I say was because it has joined with some other surrounding towns to form Izunokuni-shi. I lived in a beautiful valley which ran the length of the peninsula. One of the things I miss the most about my home in Japan is the presence of mountains on either side of me, rising up and then falling down to touch the shoreline of the Izu. Ohito-cho was a very rural location, consisting of about 15,000 citizens.

uring my two years I managed to experience a lot of Japan, though I felt like there was far more that I missed out on. One of the first experiences that I went through, a few weeks after arriving in Japan, was to climb Mt. Fuji. About 125 JETs started out together at 11 pm on the last weekend that the mountain was open to the public. Thanks to the cold wind and rain that we struggled against all night there were only about 25 of us that actually finished the climb. Of course, thanks to the aforementioned weather, we did not get a chance to see the sunrise from the top of Mt. Fuji. And no, I don’t think I’ll try it again.

also managed to visit Kyoto, Tokyo, Nagoya, and Hiroshima while I was there. This, of course, means that I had opportunities to visit such memorable locations as Kinkokujin, Akihabara, the Olympic Arena, and the Peace Museum. I also had the great opportunity to learn join Kyudo and learn this traditional art from some of my own students. They got a real kick out of being able to teach me the proper way to hold the bow and arrow, and the proper stance to use when aiming and shooting. It was also a good chance for them to stretch their English skills outside of the classroom.

ow let’s fast-forward briefly and let you know a little bit about my post-JET Program life. I live in Sioux Falls with my wife, Rihoko, my 4-year old son, Christopher, and my 1-year old daughter, Nanami. My wife is originally from Atami-shi in Shizuoka-ken, and we try our best to make it back regularly to visit with friends and family. I am an unpublished fiction writer and lover of the English language. I currently receive a regular paycheck from a large company in Sioux Falls in exchange for the daily use of some of my brain cells.

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Watch out for Double Trouble!

I just wanted to drop a quick blurb about two extremely talented authors, Philippa Balantine and Tee Morris. Here is an opportunity from Dragon Moon Press to get a free PDF download of the most recent novels by these two writers in anticipation of 08/08/08. The Double Trouble campaign is promoting Digital Magic, by Philippa Balantine, and A Billibub Baddings Mystery: The Case of the Pitcher's Pendant, by Tee Morris.

These two authors are well know for the prequels of these recent releases. Chasing the Bard is a recent podcast novel release by Philippa Balantine. And Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword is a recent podcast novel release by Tee Morris.

I encourage you to support these authors as the print release of the Double Trouble books become available for purchase on August 8, 2008. And, if you take advantage of the free PDF versions of these books go ahead and get the word out about them, including your own review, on you blog, podcast, or website. These two authors are among many talented writers out there that deserve to have their voices heard...beyond their podcasts, that is.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

R.I.P. Mr. Cassette

Check out this article from the New York Times on the death of cassette tapes. Though they haven't been used in the music industry in a long time, publishers had continued to utilize cassette tapes as a medium for audio books. Apparently that has come to an end.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Do You Censor Yourself?

I've been catching up on my Google Reader content lately and came across this wonderful article by acclaimed Brave Men Run author, Matthew Wayne Selznick. He received a response from one of his readers concerning some of the content in his book. Mr. Selznick then delved into the question of whether author's should be concerned about the content of their works offending their readers. I love his response, and you should read it in its entirety in his article, The Author's Responsibility.

As a Christian I know that I will encounter different things in the books and stories I choose to read that I may find offensive. That is the risk I take as a reader. Most of these things I take in stride as an avid reader and aspiring author. I know that many of the things we encounter are there to help us define ourselves as humans. Especially in the case of the characters in Brave Men Run, who display many of the character flaws you come to expect in teenagers. As others on Mr. Selznick's website have stated, a teenager who never does anything wrong is not believable. That is true of character's of almost any age.

In my own writing I never try to apologize for the things I've written, or the actions of my characters. If people disagree with what I'm writing they can put the book down and find another. And if reading my material changes peoples' personal opinions of me...well, I guess they'll have to learn to accept the way a human mind thinks, including mine. I know I've accepted it, and am grateful for the different ideas that flow through me during the creative process.

Mr. Selznick, congratulations on an incredible novel in Brave Men Run. And thank you for not worrying about any one's opinion but your own.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Randy Pausch Passed Away

I don't know if you've been following Dr. Randy Pausch or not. He passed away today at age 47.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Writing Resource: Backspace - The Writer's Place

I just stumbled across a new website for writers. Backspace - The Writer's Place appears to be a very nice resource. I have not had the time to do more than peruse some of the links that they have available. I'll give you more feedback in the future. In the meantime, if you happen to peruse the site first, drop me a comment with your thoughts.

Free Stuff from TOR Books!

TOR Books recently launched its brand new website. As I understand it, prior to this site being launched they were using an interim site where they were preparing people for their grand new look. On this interim site TOR was giving away free stuff. Free electronic copies of books and fantasy and sci-fi art. Well, now that the new TOR.com is up and running they've decided to make all of the free stuff that was available previously available again...for a limited time. If you are interested in free electronic books by some great TOR authors, or some incredible fantasy and sci-fi art then check out the Freebies Bonanza post from their website. The freebies are only available through Sunday, July 27, so get over there now.

Incidentally, I haven't had time to dive into their new website but, at first glance, I do like their new format. I'm thinking I might stop back again sometime.

Enjoy the free stuff!

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Jason Heath Book Signing

If you are in the Sioux Falls, South Dakota area this week I encourage you to check out a book signing by a great friend of mine. Jason Heath is a talented double bass performer, educator, blogger, and podcaster living in Evanston, Illinois. He is the author of Jason Heath's Double Bass Blog and the host of the podcast Contrabass Conversations. Both of which are very well known in world-wide music circles.

He will be having a book singing for "Road Warrior Without an Expense Account," and a talk on music business this coming Thursday, July 24, at the Oak View Branch of the Sioux Falls Public Library. The event begins at 7 pm.

This is a man who has made quite a mark on the world of New Media and I wish him the best of luck with this and future books.

Monday, April 28, 2008

In Japan - More Pictures

I haven't had as much time as I'd like to get new blog posts out for everyone. We've been busier on vacation than I thought we'd be. It's been fun, though. We've seen a lot of friends and family whom we haven't seen in a long time. For one of them I think it's been about 3 1/2 years. Anyway, by the time I've gotten home and spent time getting the kids fed and to bed I've usually run out of gas myself. It's been more than one night where I've laid down on the bed to read a book while I've waited for Christopher to fall asleep only to wake up an hour later realizing I should have left the book on the dresser. I'm writing this at about 11:20 pm Monday night here in Japan. Once again I don't have a lot of time to write out a "journal" of the events of the past several days. I would like to share a number of pictures with you, however. You can always find these pictures, and more, by visiting my Flickr site and checking out the 2008 Japan Pictorial collection.

Back home we've been complaining about the rising cost of gas. In Japan one liter of regular fuel costs 132 yen. That equates to approximately $5 a gallon. I suppose we're not as bad off as we thought.

I've picked up this same brand of vitamins at the local grocery store back home. I was surprised to find them in Japan, though not surprised how much more expensive they were here.

I thought this small freight truck had a unique design. The sides actually open up like a hatch, allowing full access to one side of the freight container at a time. It seems a little easier to get to your cargo than if you can only open the rear doors.

We ate at a Denny's restaurant here in Japan. Christopher enjoys going to Denny's back home with Grandma and Grandpa, so he wanted to go to the one here as well. We were surprised to find baby food on the menu. Also, Christopher and Nanami both got these little egg toys. Each one had a little penguin character inside. They also go puzzle to take with them. I was fairly impressed...with the service, not the food.

Recycling is taken very seriously here. This is just a small example of the different types of things that are recycled, including paper, cans, plastic bottles, and burnable garbage. When I was living here I had one closet that contained about ten different containers for all the different things that are separated and recycled here.

This is the back of an ATM machine that is located in a 7-Eleven. The name of the store in Japan is actually 7 & i-holdings, after 7-Eleven merged with Ito Yokado, a Japanese department store chain.

Here's a train we had to stop for while we were traveling to church this past Sunday. Every vehicle is required by law to stop at every single railroad crossing.

I was surprised to see this RV. Vehicles of this size are not very common in Japan. This one belonged to the All Japan Kickboxing Federation.

I hope you enjoyed this sampling of pictures that I've taken. I actually have a lot of additional ones that I think you'll enjoy, but they're still on the camera. I will be transferring them to the computer tonight, however. I need to make room for all of the pictures I'll be taking in Ginza tomorrow.

We'll be taking the train for a 2-hour ride up to Ginza for the national holiday tomorrow. Rihoko's uncle Hirokazu is an artist, and he has an exhibition in Ginza. We will then head over to one of the many upscale department stores to meet a college friend of mine and his wife. The afternoon will be spent having a late lunch and visiting with our friends. Our return to Ajiro will most likely be dictated by the tolerance our kids have for the crowds and the travel. I'll hope to have some pictures from that trip up later this week.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Dark Roasted Blend Appearance

I'm still getting the next Japan post put together for everyone. In the meantime enjoy this link to The Dark Roasted Blend. It's a pictorial blog that contains some amazing and amusing collections.

My "be careful to tsunamis" picture from this past week made it into a collection of "
Senseless Signage." It first appeared in my recent post on our first few days in Japan.

Monday, April 21, 2008

In Japan - The first few days

Well, we made it to Japan. Between spending time with family and friends, and fending off jet lag, I haven’t had much time to work on my blog articles. We’ll see if I can’t get enough done to get something posted here today.

Our travels began as we boarded the small plane that would take us from Sioux Falls, SD to Minneapolis, MN. We had a few hours of layover in Minneapolis so we stopped in a few shops to browse a little, and had lunch at the Chili’s Too restaurant located close to our concourse. We then boarded the big plane that would take us across the Pacific.

We actually lucked out in the end. We were sitting just a few rows from the back of the airplane, in the middle section. There were four seats available in the middle section, and we had the three on the right. There was a man sitting in the far left seat. He seemed a nice enough person, traveling to see his daughters who were living with his estranged wife in the Philippines. After hearing how talkative my nine-month old daughter is, though, he quickly found another empty seat to occupy. We ended up with all four seats to stretch out in. This turned out to be very nice once Christopher needed to sleep. He was just about the right size to put a pillow on my lap and stretch out over the middle two seats.

Rihoko and I didn’t manage to get very much sleep on the plane, but the kids both did. I was actually surprised at how much sleep Christopher got. When he finally woke up for breakfast, just a couple of hours before landing, he ended up crying quite a bit. He doesn’t like being woken up in the middle of the night, and back home this would have been around 3 am. He finally settled down enough so that he could eat a little. All in all, our kids didn’t make much of a fuss on the plane. Not as much as some of the crying kids, at least.

Anyway, once we arrived at Narita Airport we had to go through passport control. They allowed all of us to go through together. Usually, Rihoko would go through a “Japanese Citizen” line. Christopher would have gone with her this time. And, even though Nanami is a Japanese Citizen, she would have to go with me. Nanami currently has an American passport, but not a Japanese one. We’re planning on taking care of that while we’re here.

After passport control was done we collected our luggage and went through customs. We then left the secured area and met some of Rihoko’s family. Rihoko’s mother, Sakahe, sister, Arise, and cousin, Hisao, all came to meet us. Hisao recently bought a brand new Honda StepWgn. I’m not sure if he had the Stepwgn, or the Stepwgn Spada. I’ll try to get pictures of it later. In the meantime, here’s one picture of a Honda Stepwgn we found while walking around Ajiro. I was amazed that Hisao even managed to fit all of our luggage in the van. We had two large suitcases, 2 small suitcases, 1 large garment bag, 2 duffel bags, and one backpack. Usually we have to ship our larger suitcases from Narita to Ajiro. We usually receive them by the afternoon of the following day.

This is the first time we haven’t taken the train from the airport to Atami. We drove all the way back from Narita airport. It took a little longer than the train. Being a Friday there was a lot of traffic heading out of the Tokyo area. But we followed the whole trip on the GPS map assistant on a small screen which was built into the dash. Hisao switched the screen back and forth between the GPS map and local TV stations, which he was picking up in the car. That’s something I’d not seen before.

We finally passed through Atami, arriving in Ajiro a little after 10:30 pm Japan time. That would have made our arrival around 8:30 am Friday CDT. With the car ride I had expected our trip to take longer than usual. All said, door to door travel was right around 24 hours, maybe slightly less. We left our home in Sioux Falls around 8:30 am Thursday morning, CDT. Rihoko’s father was waiting to greet to us at the door.

On Saturday we went for a long walk along the Ajiro waterline. There’s no real beach in Ajiro, though there is a nice one in Atami. Ajiro is a small fishing town. There’s a nice path just inside the breakwater that is created by piling up what looks like enormous concrete caltrops. (I’ll get some pictures for later.) We passed by a number of wire frames where the families of the fishermen put fish, squid, seaweed, etc. out to dry. Ajiro is very well known for its dried fish and squid. No, I am not a big fan of it. Though Christopher enjoys it.

Along the path we walked past a Buddhist cemetery. It’s amazing how even the cemeteries can seem crowded when you see all of the tombstones, or hakaishi, set so close together. You can also see the sticks that people place in front of the tombstones. These are called toban. As I understand it, in the Buddhist religion, when a person dies they get a new name. This name is written on one side of the toban. The living head of the house has their name written on the opposite side. This may be a spouse, or oldest living child.

Most of our little walks in town end at the lighthouse. This time we continued on for a ways. We passed through the fish market which is very active in the early morning. I believe Rihoko said that they are usually selling fish around 5 am. We’ll have to see if I get up that early and wander out to the fish market. It would be interesting to see. They sell live and dead fish out of this market. The live ones are kept in the tanks that you see scattered around the edges of the market. There were only a couple of tanks with fish still in them.

We then passed through some of the narrow streets of Ajiro to get back home. Along the way I took a number of pictures of the little potted gardens that people had outside of their homes. These plants and flowers provide the only real yard that most of these homes have. You’ll also notice the picture of the Tsunami warning sign. This is a warning to people that tsunami waves could reach this far into the town. Notice the English translation, “be careful to tsunamis.” I guess they don’t want to hurt their feelings. I’m hoping to get more Japanese signs for you to view, both humorous and interesting. Along the way we also saw valve covers for onsen water. Residents of Ajiro can pay to get natural hot springs water piped directly into their home. These valves provide access in front of each building. And then, of course, we saw a lot of the fire hose storage boxes scattered throughout town. The fire department would use these when they bring their water trucks in.

In the evening their was a brief hanabi (fireworks) display in Atami. We were able to see the lights quite well from our location in Ajiro. Japanese hanabi are truly amazing to behold, especially if you are close to the action. Not only are the lights and shapes provided by the fireworks awesome to see, the concussion blast from the hanabi explosion is quite strong as it passes you.

Sunday morning we went to church at Hope International Fellowship. This is an interdenominational church which I attended while I was living in Japan from 1998 to 2000. At the time I joined the church was meeting in the home of the pastor, Dennis Sager. Dennis met his wife, Kaku, while attending a Bible School in Oregon. They still live in the same house with their two kids. During my stay in Japan the church moved into an old convenience store location. We cleaned the place up and built a stage on one end of the building for the pastor and worship band. The refrigerated cases were turned into our bookshelves. No we didn’t cool off our library. The church is currently renting the two bottom floors in this building, but are looking at expanding once again. They don’t have any room for Sunday schools, and don’t have a lot of room for member growth.

That afternoon Rihoko and Christopher and I went shopping at the local grocery store, Yaohan. I didn’t take a lot of pictures in this small store but I thought this one would be interesting for everyone. They sell all kinds of bread, sweet and otherwise. The loaves are usually fairly small, as people in Japan tend to buy less and shop more often. In the bread section you can find these pancakes, “hotcakes,” precooked and packaged for your convenience. I wonder how many preservatives you’d need to use to keep the pancakes fresh.

Monday morning Rihoko ran out to take care of some errands. She set up health insurance for her and the kids. The really nice thing about the kids having Japanese citizenship is that they pay no money for health care when they carry insurance. While she was doing that we took Nanami out in the stroller to a nearby open space so that Christopher could play with his remote control car. This is a car that is nearly as long as Christopher is tall. He received it as a 1st birthday present from his Japanese grandpa and grandma. It ended up being too big for them to ship over to America, so we play with it whenever we visit. Unfortunately, Christopher tripper while playing and scraped his knee and elbow. That put a quick end to playing with the remote control car.

After lunch we all went out to Komuroyama Koen with Christopher and Nanami’s Jiji. Jiji is short of Ojiisan, which means grandfather. Koen is Japanese for park. You’ll likely see that a lot in these entries. Anyway, we had a chance to ride up a chair lift to the top of this mountain where we had a great view of the bay and surrounding mountains. Through the haze we think we even saw the coastline around Odawara in Kanaga Prefecture, and maybe as far east as Chiba Prefecture. These chairs are wide open so you can get on and off easily. I was surprised how well Christopher did, as he had to ride on my lap. I was a little nervous as I was the only thing keeping Christopher from falling off, but he did really well. And he really enjoyed going up and down the chair lift.

Down in the main area of the park they have a number of flower gardens, as well as a war memorial, This memorial was set up to remember all those who had died in World War II. We didn’t go in, but I got some nice pictures of it.

You know, I think I’ve actually caught up to our trip so far. I don’t think my future entries will be quite so lengthy. I worked on this on and off all day today. I will continue to add more pictures for everyone to enjoy, though. You can also check out all of my pictures in this Flickr collection for our trip. You may notice that I don’t include any pictures of my kids in these articles. As a general rule, I don’t put them out on public websites. If you are a good friend of mine you can always request to be added to my Flickr contact list. But this is generally reserved for people I know in person. No offense, I’d just rather be safe where they’re concerned.

We will continue to enjoy our vacation in Japan. I hope that all of you are enjoying it as well, as vicarious as your experience is through this article. If you have any questions about the pictures here or in my Flickr collection feel free to email me or leave a comment. Also, if there is something particular you’d like me to try to get a picture of let me know. I can’t guarantee finding what you’d like to see, but I’ll do my best.

In the meantime, here are the sets of pictures under my new Flickr Collection, 2008 Japan Pictorial.

I'm still expanding and organizing these sets of pictures, so some of the names and/or links may change. But enjoy the pictures, and leave comments for the ones you like.

Until next time, matta ne!

Saturday, March 29, 2008

We're Visiting Japan Soon

Well friends, my family and I are moving closer to our planned trip to Japan. We've been hoping to get over there to see friends and Rihoko's family sometime in late May or June. However, due to increasing prices in airline tickets we decided to move our trip up earlier. We'll be flying over to Japan on Thursday, April 17. I will be staying about three weeks, returning home on Friday, May 9. Rihoko, Christopher, and Nanami will stay with Rihoko's family for an additional nine weeks after that, returning home on Friday, July 11. Yep, I have to get used to an extended period of bachelorhood once more. The longest that we've had one of these separations previously has been around five weeks, so this is going to take some work. The worst part of them being in Japan longer is that I'll be missing Christopher's fourth birthday. Fortunately, they'll be home before Nanami's first birthday in late July.

Of course, I am trying to focus on the three weeks we'll have together in Japan. It's going to be an exciting time for all of us. We haven't made it back to Japan in about a year and a half, so Rihoko is very anxious to see her family again. And none of them have met our daughter Nanami yet, except through pictures and digital video clips. They've even informed us that they may take the shinkansen (bullet train) trip out to meet us at Narita Airport. I don't think I'd mind that, as having some extra hands to care for the kids would be nice after a twelve hour flight. But I don't expect them to come up, as it is fairly expensive to ride the shinkansen.

So what will the trip entail for us? Well, we'll be flying from Sioux Falls, South Dakota to Minneapolis International Airport. From there we'll take a direct flight to Narita International Airport, east of Tokyo. Once we've gotten through immigration at Narita we'll send some of our luggage ahead via a Japanese shipping company, similar to UPS. We'll then purchase tickets to ride the Narita Express straight into Tokyo Station. Once we get there we'll have to cross to the opposite side of the station, during Friday evening rush hour I might add, and reach the platforms for the Shinkansen lines heading west. Fortunately, the shinkansen ride will only take 45 minutes for us to reach the Shinkansen station in Atami (site in Japanese, or check out the Wikipedia article), where Rihoko is from. We will ride on the Kodama version of the 700 Series of shinkansen. The 700 series can reach a maximum of approximately 167 mph. The Kodama, however, is on the slower end for this series because it stops at all of the smaller stations along the line.

Once we've reached Atami we will either take a local train line south, or travel by car to reach RIhoko's parents house. They live in Ajiro, a small fishing town on the south side of Atami. Our total travel time is usually 24 hours, door to door. I haven't added up this trip, but I assume it will be about the same.

Atami is located on the Izu Peninsula, which is part of Shizuoka Prefecture. The Izu is a beautiful resort are that is widely visited by people residing elsewhere in Japan, and abroad. Shizuoka is probably best known for Mt. Fuji, which is located in northern Shizuoka. I actually had a great view of Mt. Fuji from the desk in my home office when I was teaching there. And I even managed to climb to the top...once. Shizuoka is also famous for it's green tea. About 45% of all the green tea consumed in Japan is gown in Shizuoka. And it's my opinion that they grow the most delicious green tea in the world. Check out this list of "number ones" related to Shizuoka. Shizuoka also played a major role in Japan's opening of its borders to the outside world in the 1850s. Shimoda, which is a port city located on the southern tip of the Izu Pensinula is where Commodore Matthew Perry's "black ships" landed and negotiated the opening of this port to American trade.

I'm sure that we will have a fairly busy schedule while we are in Japan. Though our main reason for going there is to spend time with Rihoko's family, we will also likely travel around the area to see friends, and do some site-seeing. Rihoko's parents are really good about taking us to many of the numerous parks they have in this region. The parks are beautiful in Japan, and offer an inexpensive form of entertainment for the kids. Some friends of ours have also talked about taking us up to Tokyo Disneyland while we are there. I think that would be a lot of fun to do with Christopher. Nanami is still too young to really enjoy anything there yet. I wouldn't mind visiting Tokyo Disney Sea Park, but we'll probably settle on only one of the theme parks.

One thing I'm really hoping to do is share this trip with all of you. During our stay I intend on carrying a notebook and camera with me as we travel around, or as we hang out at home. I will then do my very best to get a new post up on this blog every two to three days. Our priority, of course, is spending time with family and friends. But I hope to take advantage of the vacation time to do some additional writing and work on my blog. I also hope to spend a good amount of time after I return to kick my writing into high gear. Since I'll be away from my family for nine weeks I think I'll need to focus my energies somewhere to distract me. What better work could I throw myself into than my writing. If you follow me on Twitter I'll be sure to update you when each new post goes up. And I'll no doubt be adding pictures to my Travel and Japanese Pictures collections on my Flickr account.

If there's anything concerning Japan that you'd like me to write about, or you'd like me to get a picture of, please let me know. I can't promise I'll be able to accommodate everyone, but I'll do my best. Until then, take care my friends.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Friday, February 8, 2008

Legion - Unfinished Fiction

I believe this piece of fiction was written in the Fall of 1996. It was turned in as my fiction piece for a Creative Writing course I was taking. "Legion" is an unfinished tale, darker in nature than most of the prose I was writing at the time. I have not edited the material since it was turned in, so there are some obvious sections which have the sign of amateur writing cast all over them. Despite that I enjoyed thinking through this tale. The copy I have on my computer has an additional three pages of copious notes on potential directions this story could have taken. Perhaps one day I will pick it up and realize that I need to finish it. Until then I hope you enjoy this first section...


by Michael I. Colwill

God help me, I’m probably the only one that knows what’s going on. It’s now been a full week since the killings started, brutal slayings that resulted in a great loss of life. The police have been unable to discover any clues as to the identity of the butcher. I wish I was as ignorant of everything going on in town as they were.

I sometimes wonder if I’m the only one that truly cares. So many people I know slain, and the rest of the town seems to grow steadily more callused as the numbers increase. Even with the fire at the grade school. Mrs. Misolt and five third graders burned to death before the fire fighters even got into the building. The whole town seems to be going to hell recently.

It all seemed to stem from my walk through the woods two weeks ago. The deadline for my new story was coming up fast, and I was still lacking a concept to put on paper. Everything I thought of seemed foolish, amateur, or done before. The pressure was just too much for me to take much longer. I decided I had to take a day off and relax.

That Saturday I slept in for the first time I can remember in years. After a hearty breakfast I decided to spend the day wandering around in the forest to the west of town. I knew the chance to get back to nature would help clear my head and relieve some of the stress I was feeling lately. So I slipped on my hiking boots and grabbed my favorite walking staff I had found nearly three years ago, when I first started to explore the woodland outside of town. The stick was roughly rounded on one end, the end I considered to be the top, and stood slightly taller than me.

The woods had been my favorite place to relax since I moved here from the city. It spanned a great distance, several dozen miles, from north to south. And stretched almost half that from the edge of town to the point where the landscape became more rugged before ascending into a lofty mountain range. I had only wandered about the outskirts of the forest that touched the edge of town. Come to think of it, I knew a majority of the people that lived in town, and nobody I had spoken to had ever traveled more than five miles into the forest.

I had all day free, so I decided to travel deeper into the forest than I had on previous excursions. But knowing that the afternoon could easily slip away before the march of the nighttime sky, I decided to keep track of how far I had gone. Although I loved to go camping, I really didn’t have any fondness for spending the night in these woods all alone. By the time I reached the edge of the forest the morning was passing into afternoon. I figured I had plenty of time to roam about, and still make it out before nightfall.

I traveled in what I thought was a fairly straight line as I entered the forest. I wanted to get past all the sites I had already explored. The first hour of walking was spent doing just that. The entire time I wandered in those woods I didn’t see another living creature, save two deer. And those I had seen on the very outskirts of the woods as I began my walk. The sun seemed to be making it through the mesh of branches hanging over my head without too much trouble. Although shadows seemed to cover most of the ground, there was still plenty of light for me to determine what direction I was headed.

There seemed to be some sort of barrier between the forest area I had traversed in the past and this new part standing before me. I reached up to wipe a bead of sweat from my brow. A sudden fear washed over my body as I gazed into the darkness before me. Slowly I began to walk further into the woods. It was almost like walking into a cave. The branches overhead were much thicker and shadows loomed everywhere the eye could see.

As I walked onward the woods seemed to grow thicker about me. It was almost as if the trees were closing in, preparing to snare me in some trap. I definitely felt something affect me like a physical thing—a warning that tripped my emotions. And a chill hung in the air penetrating my bones, dampening my soul. The hair all over my body seemed to be standing on end, as if expecting something to happen. The light grew dimmer as I continued further into the forest.

My heart was beating faster than usual, as the tension ran through my body. Something inside of me tried to convince my legs to turn around and return to the safety of the town, to the comfort of my own home. The only thing I could do was keep on walking into what was turning out to be a veritable maze of tree trunks and branches.

I don’t recall how long I was walking before I came to a small clearing, although the sunlight did not permeate the thick web of branches that hung over the grassy barren patch of ground. In fact, the space was completely empty, save for a fallen tree trunk stretched across my path. I stepped over the log and sat down on it to rest for a moment.

It was then I noticed the quiet of the woods around me. I closed my eyes for a second and strained to hear anything in the forest land surrounding me. But the only thing that met my ears was the cold empty reply of silence. After opening my eyes I quickly scanned the trees. I had a strange sensation there were a million eyes on me. I simply couldn’t shake the feeling I wasn’t alone here. I saw only shadows keeping me company this afternoon. There didn’t seem to be any animals out there. I expected to at least hear the chirp of a bird or the hum of insects coming from somewhere. But I could pick out no sign that there might be something else out there, other than some kind of intuition telling me there was.

I decided I had to continue hiking into the forest and try to find a reason for this strange feeling I had. As I reached for my staff which I had set down next to me I paused. The stark difference in color between my staff and the wood of the tree trunk I was sitting on was remarkable. My staff retained its natural light brown color that it always had. But the wood where the bark had fallen off of the trunk was a mixture of ashen gray and the blue of a stormy sky. As I looked at the trees around me, they all seemed to exhibit a similar color. I merely would have thought it the result of the shadows on the wood. But the shadows didn’t have any sort of effect on my own staff. It was as if the wooden rod were the only bit of wood that ever knew life. The rest of the forest around me seemed frozen in a place only familiar with death. I pondered why this might be so as I took my staff and departed from the clearing, moving deeper into the forest.

I walked for a long time before I even considered returning to town before dark. I quickly glanced at my watch and muttered a curse. It had stopped at 3:47 PM, the second hand resting exactly at twelve. I tried to estimate what time it might be. But there was nowhere near enough light coming through for me to even venture a guess. I decided it was time to start heading back, although I knew I wouldn’t get out before the sun fell behind the mountains, casting their shadows over the forest.

I tried to determine in what direction the sun was shining from. But no matter how carefully I examined the few streaks of light that broke through the canopy I couldn’t make out in which direction the town was. It was then I discovered my first piece of evidence that someone else was in these woods. I could smell something drifting past me on a light breeze that seemed to be coming from nowhere at all. My mouth began to water as I realized that it was some sort of food being prepared. I couldn’t seem to make out a particular scent, however.

I decided from which direction I thought the aroma was coming and headed towards it. The trees began to grow even closer as I moved deeper into the woods. It was almost as if the very forest were trying to persuade me not to investigate the source of the smell that seemed to rest on all of my senses and draw me forward. I had to practically climb over spots in which the ground seemed to consist mostly of tree trunks sprouting from the forest floor.

And then the trees ended, as if someone set some border which they couldn’t cross. I came upon another clearing in the forest, this one being much larger than the last. And on the far end of the clearing there was a cabin facing me. It was really more like a hut or a cottage, a simple one-level dwelling with a thatched roof. The cottage was built out of the trees of the forest, giving it too a cold blue-gray color. There was a simple wooden door in front of me. And off to its left there was a warm light pouring through a small round window. Sticking up from the back of the house was a simple stone chimney, a small line of smoke slowly drifting up and away from the cottage.

But it was the light from the window I focus on right away. My heart lifted slightly, knowing I was not the only soul in these woods. Perhaps I would not have to spend the night in the cold dark clutches of these lifeless trees. As I closed the distance between me and the front door, that hopeless oppression which had been weighing me down out in the forest was lifting.

I hesitated for a second before I knocked on the door. For some reason I had the crazy notion to walk away from this cottage and take my chances wandering through the black trees behind me. Right away I shrugged this insane notion from my mind and let my knuckles lightly rap on the door three times. Not hearing any movement from inside I knocked four times on the door, louder than before. I waited for what seemed to be a long time, and still no movement from inside. Starting to panic slightly at the thought of being stuck outside overnight, I pounded my fist on the door quickly seven times.

As soon as my hand lifted from the wood after the seventh knock a gust of icy cold wind swept past me, sending a black chill through me. The door of the cottage swung quickly away, causing me to jump and almost scream. The sound froze at the edge of my mouth, however, as I gazed at the figure standing before me. The light from inside blinded me to the details of his face. All I saw was the silhouette of a tall man clutching a black cloak around him. My eyes quickly started to adjust and I noticed the dark beard that hung from his pointy chin. And then I saw them, red as hot coals peering forth from two black pits that were the hollows of his eyes.

I fought the sudden urge to run as I gazed into those searing eyes that seemed to burn their way into my very core. Realizing how I must have looked to the man I tried to compose myself. Closing my mouth I waited for the color to start to return to my face.

“I’m sorry,” I stuttered, “You startled me.”

“Trust me, son, it was by no means intentional. You’re a long way from home. Is there something that I can assist you with?” His face was still in shadow, masking his features. Yet his voice had a melodious tone to it. I sensed the welcoming smile hidden by what seemed to be some obscure mask.

Forcing a smile to my own face I weakly replied. “I seem to have gotten myself lost. I’m sorry about bothering you, but you wouldn’t be able to point me in the direction of town, would you?”

“Dear man, you don’t mean to attempt returning home through these woods in the dark of night, do you? You would sooner find yourself in the middle of the mountains than you would back in town. Join me for the evening. You may rest here and wait for the morning light to guide you back to town.”

It was then that he stepped back from the doorway, allowing the light to fall upon his face. His red eyes did not glow so brightly now, perhaps that was just my imagination running wild. But they were set deep in his head, as if trying to remain in darkness. His thin nose came to a sharp point above his black mustache which ran down either side of his deep red lips to flow into the dark beard that hung from a slender face. His hair was black as night, descending past his shoulders.

The black cloak that the man wore covered a robe of the same color. This was pulled close about his waist by a scarlet rope, the ends hanging down the front. The sleeve of the robe draped down as he gestured for me to enter.

His invitation had a very calming and welcoming feel to it, I couldn’t refuse him. And so I crossed the threshold of the cottage. As I stepped onto the wood floor I felt an inexplicable warmth rise through my body. My previous fears forgotten, I let my gaze wander over the inside of the cottage.

It seemed strange how there could be so much room here when, from the outside, the cottage had seemed so small. Off to the left there was a kitchen area. A wooden table stood across from several wall cupboards that I assumed contained food and dishes. Near the front of the cottage, in front of the only window, stood a small round table upon which rested a single candle. A wooden chair sat on either side of it. To the right of the door was a large desk covered with scattered papers and dusty tomes. Pressed against the wall on top of the desk was a two-level bookcase, full of more books. All of the leather bound volumes seemed to be coated in dust. Near the back of the cottage was a gray cloth-curtained partition hanging from the rafters overhead. I assumed that the man’s sleeping quarters would be found on the other side.

Sitting on a large rug were two high-backed chairs, a small end table sitting between them. The circular rug was covered with several ornate designs and rested in front of the most dominating feature of the room. This was the fireplace, which lit the entire area. Inside of this stone hearth hung a large black cauldron. It was from here that the unusual smell I’d sensed earlier had originated. Inside the cauldron I could see some meat floating in a dark boiling liquid.

Above the fireplace was a wooden mantle, upon which I could see several objects. There were a couple of large candles, in extravagant brass holders. In between these two there were several carved stones and crystals in many different geometric shapes. In the center of the mantle sat an ornamental brass circle upon which rested a large glass sphere. This sphere seemed remarkably flawless, other than the fact that it didn’t reflect any light at all.

“Do make yourself comfortable.”

I forced myself not to jump at the sudden intrusion of that euphonious voice into my thoughts.

I started to slowly walk away from the door where this strange man stood. Cautiously I approached one of the black chairs that sat in front of the mesmerizing flames which danced around the bottom of the cauldron. I was suddenly aware of the way I had been clutching my walking staff. I started to loosen my grip on the wood, letting the blood flow back through the knuckles. But I still retained a firm grip, realizing that the presence of the staff brought comfort in this strange place.

The sound of grating wood caused me to spin about. A heavy wood beam had been placed across the door. The man was facing me now, a smile curled upon his lips. My heart skipped a beat as he began to walk toward me.

“You never know what might be lurking in the shadows. A person can’t be too cautious out here in the forest.”

He passed by me and moved to the chair closest to the curtained area.

“Please, have a seat,” he said, gesturing to the dark chair on the other side of the small table.

I lowered myself into the armchair after I rested my staff against the high back. The seat was extremely comfortable and I felt myself relaxing with the warmth from the fireplace. As I glanced over at the man I noticed that his sight rested on something beyond me. He appeared to be looking at my staff!

The empty far-away look disappeared from his eyes as they shifted and glanced into mine. A smile passed across his face as he spoke, “I apologize for being so rude. I am called Akuma. And you would be?”

“My name is Michael,” I replied. Akuma lifted an eyebrow at this, apparently interested at the discovery.

“Does this mean that you are a man of God?” he inquired. The puzzled look on me prompted him to elaborate. “That is what your name means, you know.”

“Oh. Well…yes, I guess it does,” I replied. “I guess it’s been a long time since I’ve thought about that.”

He sat looking at me expectantly. I was about to question the stare when he repeated his previous question that I had yet to answer: “Are you a Godly man, Michael?”

I shifted uncomfortably in the chair. “I suppose I am. I never gave it too much thought.”

I didn’t feel like giving him the entire history of my spiritual life. Over the last few years there hasn’t been much of one to speak of. I had been raised in the church and had always considered myself an active Christian. However, the complicated manipulations of organized religion had set fire to the cross which I had unquestioningly loved as a youth. I saw the hypocrites it had made out of several of the friends I used to associate with when I was younger. I decided not to let it do that to me.

A clawing noise brought me out of my daydream. I again noticed Akuma examining the staff that rested against my chair. I was about to ask him about his interest when that noise once again occurred. It seemed to be some sort of clawing coming from behind the curtain. My sudden glance at the curtain seemed to pull Akuma from his own thoughts.

“Do not concern yourself over that,” he said. “It is merely my pet, Zouo. He poses no threat to you at all, unless I wish it, that is.” This last seemed to be some twisted attempt at humor, although I felt it as more a threat than as humor.

“Tell me,” he continued, “where did you come by your staff?”

My hand wrapped around the shaft as I glanced over at it. I lifted it from the back of the chair as I turned to Akuma. “Why do you ask?”

“It seems to be remarkably well made,” he explained. “The material that it’s made of appears very strong. I was merely admiring the craftsmanship.”

Satisfied with that I shared the story of my staff’s discovery. “A few years ago, during the winter, I decided to take a walk in the woods. This was nothing unusual, as I tend to do this to relax. As I was walking along that day I came to an area that seemed to have some particularly deep snow drifts. Seeing no way around them, I decided to plod my way through. I’d made it no more than ten feet when I tripped on something buried in a drift. After I picked myself up I glanced back to see what I had stumbled on. I found the rounded head of this staff protruding from the snow that was white enough to blind a man. I dug it out and found it to be the perfect size for a walking stick and it seemed to have been carved by someone who knew what he was doing. So I kept it.”

He looked like he was going to reply when both of us heard a scratching noise on the floor behind my chair. As I glanced around I felt something grab hold of the bottom of my staff and try to take off with it. Luckily I had firmed up my grip before it got loose. It was then that I noticed the lizard-like creature that was attempting to steal the staff.

It was incredible. Scurrying back and forth on the floor was what appeared to be a miniature dragon. It was only about three feet long from head to tail. But the thing was a spitting image of all the dragons described in those fantasy books I’d read in my youth.

I stood up to try to loosen the thing’s grip on my staff. As I rose, the thing gave a quick jerk on the staff, throwing me off balance. I started to trip forward, my hand still grasping the staff. There was no chance for me to correct my balancing problem. And so I reached out to grab the only thing I saw that might be able to keep me from falling on my face—the gray curtain.

There was a ripping sound above me as the entire curtain fell to the floor with me. I heard a small gasp, or was it a curse, from Akuma and what must have been a bark of sorts from the dragon. Then there was only silence in the room. I threw the curtain off of me and quickly gained my feet, prepared to apologize for the damage I’d done. It was then that I saw what that gray curtain had been hiding. My heart froze as I tried to comprehend the horror that stood before me.

Sitting against the wall where Akuma’s bed should have been was an altar. It’s base consisted of packed earth that had bones of all sorts protruding from it. Sitting atop this was a row of human skulls of various sizes. Some of them were sitting upright, others tipped this way and that, and a few of them had been flipped upside down. Resting on the skulls was a large piece of marble, several inches thick. Resting above this was some sort of padded cushion that encircled the outer rim of the marble. It was nearly a foot tall and a foot wide. This cushion created a wide gaping hole the size of a large man in the center of the altar.

It was this cushion-like barrier that caused my stomach to turn. It was covered with human flesh. The flesh had been stretched taut and neatly sewn together in large patches. I could make out various parts of anatomy that had been used to make this detestable shrine. In one spot could be seen several thin strips that came from a hand. Sewn in above that and to the right was a large piece that had several hairs sticking out of it, having come from a man’s leg. And below this was the stretched and distorted mask of a human face. The gaping holes where the eyes had been stared at me like vacant black pits.

I wanted to run, but my feet were frozen. I couldn’t help but find myself gruesomely fascinated with this monstrous construction. The fear that was coursing through multiplied a hundredfold when I found myself approaching the devilish tabernacle.

Some force that was beyond me was compelling me to advance towards the altar. I quickly found myself standing in front of the thing, staring into the gaping hole in the top. I didn’t seem surprised to find that the hole opened into a great shadowy pit. I couldn’t see anything inside of the hole, only an emptiness that stretched eternally downward. I screamed in terror when I looked into that shadowy world where no light could ever hope to intrude. Then came the other screams. They started individually and quietly, and slowly added shriek to shriek. In a very short time the entire cabin was shaking with the tormented cries of millions of lost souls.

The terror suddenly freed me from my frozen position before this demon’s altar. I began to back slowly away from the gaping hole, my eyes fixed on the darkness. Then I remembered Akuma. I spun about, holding my staff in front of me to fend off any advances he may have made. He stood in front of the chair where I had left him. I stared into his eyes, the red glow having returned to them. A thin smile was curled upon his scarlet lips. The dragon pet was nowhere to be seen.

“What the hell is that thing?” I screamed at him, readying my staff for a swing.

“That is us, my dear Michael. That will be your home once we’ve finished with you. It is a place full of nothing but constant darkness and fear.”

As he spoke he took a step towards me. I swung the staff with all my might, trying to knock him out so I could escape. He ducked underneath my swing with surprising agility. But I was ready for this. I tightened my grip, preparing to take him with a back swing.

Just as I started to bring my staff around again, I felt something slam into the back of my left shoulder. I righted myself holding the staff out in front of me. Akuma still stood in front of the chair, and Zouo was now crouched on the floor near the cauldron, his black eyes fixed on the staff in my hands.

Akuma showed no concern over the staff as he once again stepped forward, raising a hand as if looking for an opening to tear me apart. This time I managed to surprise him. I brought the bottom end of the staff up, connecting with his left knee. A blinding flash of light sparked from the end of the staff as I heard a hundred voices scream out in pain.

I saw some movement out of the corner of my eye and reversed my grip on the staff so that I could lash out at Zouo. Seeing the rounded end of the staff flying at him, the creature leapt into the air and scurried away. The staff struck the cauldron with another blinding flash. The cauldron was thrown against the back of the large hearth, splashing some of the black liquid inside out of it. I brought my right arm up to fend off the spill, but some of it splashed against the underside of my forearm. The pain was nearly unbearable, and I fought to retain consciousness as my vision started to blur.

My sight cleared and I saw Akuma kneeling on the floor, clutching his left knee. As he looked up at me I saw my own death in his eyes. Out of fear for more than my life, I weakly swung the staff at him again. He almost managed to clear the swing, but it caught him on the left side of his face, cutting through his thick beard. This threw him back against the floor, and I saw my opportunity to escape. I darted past the great hearth, scaring Zouo away with another swing. Then I redirected my charge towards the small table below the window. As I neared the wall I threw my body forward in a full dive, right through the window.

I barely noticed the cold chill that hung in the night air as I hit the ground, groaning as I thudded. I forced myself to my feet, my arm still searing from the burn of the cauldron’s dark contents. I fought off the urge to faint as I charged to the trees opposite me. I reached the first heavy clump and climbed my way through at breakneck speed. Before I knew it, I was tearing through the thicket aimlessly, driven by a need to put as much distance between me and that cottage as possible.

“Michael!!!” The scream ripped through the night air, slashing into my mind as if it hadn’t been spoken aloud. “Run to the meek safety of your town. But know this, you will join us at our altar. You belong to me-e-e!!!”

That scream burned into me, stealing all of the energy from me. I couldn’t force myself to go any farther. As I started to collapse among the dead trees all around me, I prayed that I had run far enough. The last thing I remembered before the darkness overtook me was pressing my staff firmly against my body, as if it would shield me from the shadows.

~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~

BEEP - BEEP - BEEP - BEEP - BEEP! I lashed out at the alarm clock sitting on the night stand next to my bed. I missed terribly, my hand striking the base of the touch lamp that sat there. The small light slid across the surface and then crashed to floor. BEEP - BEEP - BEEP! After a small curse I launched a second assault at the alarm, this one meeting with success.

After repeating this four times, I dragged my weary body out from under the heavy quilt that my grandmother had made for me years ago. I stood tall, stretching my hands towards the ceiling in order to work all the kinks out of my back. With only one eye slightly cocked open, I stumbled across the clothes garnished floor to the bathroom.

I clumsily stumbled through my morning routine half-consciously. After the first twenty minutes of my shower I began to wake up. Walking out of the bathroom, still drowsy but alert, I struggled to pull a pair of faded blue jeans on.

As I zipped up the comfortable jeans I turned toward the bedroom door and noticed my walking staff leaning against the wall in one corner of the room. I froze , the horrific images returning to me. I quickly spun around, scanning my room. It was then that it occurred to me that that frightful event might have been the results of the leftover pizza I had scraped out of the fridge before going to bed.

I started to laugh. Wow! That was one of the most vivid nightmares I have ever had. It was so damn scary just thinking about it, I thought it would’ve made a great story. I’d have to find the time to sit down and write it up.

I brought my hands up to rub my temples, and then ran them through my thick brown hair as I remembered the cold pepperoni pizza and peach wine cooler I had while watching one of the hundreds of late late shows on cable.

My hands froze at the crown of my head, the color drained from my face as I looked into the mirror mounted on the back of my bedroom door. On the underside of my right forearm I saw three large marks. I pulled my right arm down to examine them. The skin seemed to be ripped away as three dark red scars bulged up on my arm. I ran my left hand carefully across the three numbers they made: three, four, seven.