by Abigail B. CAPITIN-PRINCIPE
This happened several years ago, when I first worked as a full-time lecturer, teaching English at a university in Japan. I will not mention the name of university here, as it may not be in the best interest of all concerned. Mainly myself.
It happened around August, it was the summer, and I was working late at my office. I was writing an article, at least trying to, and I didn’t realize that it has gotten quite late. Well past 8PM. I didn’t really think much of it, many teachers stay late, at least, that’s what I thought, this being Japan, everyone works late. I never really stayed past 6pm, and this was the first time I was still on campus at 8PM. I looked out and noticed that it was already quite dark, and since this university is surrounded by a bamboo forest, well, maybe smaller than a forest, but still a lot of bamboo, there’s not a lot of light outside, aside from the light of the university itself.
I didn’t think much of it, I just checked the schedule for the last bus out, and found I have enough time, so I decided to get some more work done, so I can enjoy the weekend.
I became engrossed in checking and evaluating students’ essays. Writing notes and suggestions in red ink. “Check your spelling.” “Capitalization is important.” “We had a lesson about commas, and their uses, check this and re-write.” And so on. When I looked up, the clock in the office said 8:55. Well, that was a fast 55 minutes.
I started to gather my things, getting ready to catch the 9:15 bus to the train station. This was when I heard a weird banging noise, like the echo of a heavy object being flung against a wall or floor. It didn’t actually sound like something being flung against the wall, but like the echo of it, muffled but clear. And the sound quality didn’t really give any clue as to whether it was outside, in the hallway, or on a different floor of the building. It was really a very strange sound. Not particularly scary, just strange. I figured, maybe there were still cleaning staff around, and they were doing carpet cleaning, or something. Didn’t really think much of it.
Now, my office was on the ground floor, it was quite near the front entrance of the building, and in a direct line of sight with the bus stop, so I wasn’t really worried about not catching the bus. But the way the building was built, the ground floor was ground level when you enter the building, but the walkway on the side of the building is higher, so the windows of the teachers’ office is the same level as the ground, the office is at a lower angle, so when people look in from outside, they end up looking down at the teachers, like in a basement. This also means, we sometimes just see the legs of people pass by. It is a very weird set-up. So, from a certain angle, I can just about see the bus from the window of my office, when it pulls in.
When I heard the noise, I looked out to see if maybe the bus caused it. The bus wasn’t there yet: Actually, there was no one outside at all. No people walking to the bus stop, no guard near the gate, no one at all. I realized that this was the first time I’ve seen that area devoid of people. It was eerie, but understandable, because it was, after all, already almost 9PM.
I hurried and got my stuff. Shut down my computer, made sure all lights and the aircon were switched off, checked that the printer was also turned off. Ticked off the checklist at the door, posted there to make sure the last person does everything required, before leaving the office. I checked that I have my keycard, put my backpack on, and walked out the office. Double checked that the door is locked and walked to the front doors. The front doors are automatic double glass doors, and so I just expected them to open when I walked towards them. I stood in front of the doors, and nothing happened. I waved my hand a few times at the sensor, still nothing. Then I heard the weird noise again, I looked behind me to see if there is anyone in the hallway, maybe I can ask for help with the doors. There was nothing and no one, that I can see because the hallway was dark. The only light was coming from the lights outside the building. I knew that there was another exit on the other side of the building that my keycard can open, but that would mean walking one floor up, crossing two hallways, then walking back down again. Like I said, weird building. I did not relish walking to the other door, one, because it is mendokusai, and two, I knew the upper floors would be darker, because the building staff close all lights except those on the 1st floor, after 5th period classes. And last but not least, I am starting to be a little concerned about the muffled banging I was hearing, now with less intervals, and somehow sounding closer.
I tried to see if there was anybody outside. Maybe the guard was making rounds and might look toward the glass doors and see me. I turned on my phone light and waved it outside. Nothing. I decided there’s no other way than to go out via the exit on the other side of the building.
I turned and walked toward the stairs. Now, another thing about my office, is that the metal door has a bit of glass running from top to bottom. I guess it’s there so that people outside can see if the teacher they are looking for is in. I had to pass by my office door to get to the stairs, and as I did, I glanced inside automatically, not really expecting to see anything. But my peripheral vision saw something that I could not immediately identify, and my brain decided to have a second look. So, I looked. And behind my desk, where you could see the window, there was nothing. Just a swathe of nothing. The window should have shown at least part of the sky, and from the angle of the door, a portion of the wall that surrounds the university. But there was nothing. At first, I thought it was because it was dark. But it wasn’t darkness, it was just nothing. Like a void, like something I would imagine space would be between stars and planets. My mind reeled, and I took a step toward my office with my keycard in hand, thinking, I should check this out, because I can’t be really seeing nothing. Then I heard the muffled banging again, and I stopped. Some thought formed in my brain, that maybe checking it out isn’t the best idea, the best idea would be getting out of the building and catching my bus. Also, where is that banging coming from?
I backed away from my office, and that troubling window, and walked toward the stairs, I was telling myself that I was just tired, and I’m seeing things. As I started up the stairs, I glanced back at the double glass doors of the building entrance, and saw that it wasn’t showing the guard house, or the bus stop anymore, instead it showed a grayish hue, that was gradually becoming nothing.
I sprinted up the stairs, all the while hearing the weird banging noise. I decided I was going to follow that noise, because it seems to clear up my brain when I hear it. Running up the stairs, I avoided looking at any of the windows, I just focused on the general direction leading to the other door and listened to the muffled banging noise. I ran down the first hallway, it was dark, and my phone light was swinging around as I ran, I forgot to turn it off. I turned and started running down the second hallway. With the banging noise sounding closer. I risked looking out one of the windows and again, there was nothing. I almost stopped, if not for the banging that once again cleared my head. I ran, and ran, and ran, finally reaching the stairs leading down to the exit. I thought, what if I go out, and there is nothing? I didn’t want to think about it, I just slapped my keycard, which by some miracle, I did not drop in all my running, onto the security pad, and pushed the door open. There was a split second when I thought I was surrounded by nothing, but then I realized my eyes were closed. I opened them and looked around. I was at the back of the building. It was night, and I could see the lights of the bus stop, and the guard house. I looked back and the building behind me looked normal. I walked along the side of the building, past the ground level windows that look into my office. I looked in and I saw desks, chairs, and the meeting table where teachers sometimes eat lunch and chat. All there, normal as normal can be. I walked hurriedly to the bus top. I saw the guard and asked him what time the bus would arrive. He said it will arrive in 10 minutes. I looked at my watch at it said 9:05. Since I left my office, until I walked to the bus stop, only 10 minutes have passed. I don’t know what happened, or how it happened. And I noticed I couldn’t hear the banging anymore. I walked to the bus stop and waited for my bus.
Fast forward to the present. Still at the same office. I was looking out the window and saw a lot of construction machinery. I asked a colleague if she knew what was going on. She said she heard that the local government was going to cut down the bamboo forest, to make way for houses and business establishments. I thought that was sad. I liked the forest, even if it was just a small forest. After classes, I decided to take a walk and maybe see the forest one last time. There is a path that leads to it behind the university. As I was walking, I saw a group of monks. Their orange robes seemed to glow in the early evening light of summer. They had little drums with them, and they were banging on them while chanting. I stopped to listen, thinking that the drums didn’t sound like the usual Japanese drums I hear, but that the sound seemed familiar. There were other people there as well, watching the monks, one of them was the colleague I was speaking with earlier. I asked her what was going on. She said that the monks were here to pray to the spirit of the forest and ask forgiveness. They believe that the forest might get angry when cut down, and might lash out by consuming everything around it, leaving nothing. The monks are there to stop the forest from lashing out, and to guide it to a peaceful resting place. I stayed a while, listening to the drums, thinking the banging sounded like a heavy object being flung against a wall or floor. Wondering if the forest sees time like we do, and thinking also, that it probably doesn’t.